Friday, January 15, 2016

Comfort TV Tribute: Gary Owens

From 1997 through about 2001, if you called my home and I wasn’t in, you would have heard the following answering machine message:

Hello, this is Gary Owens, reminding you that David Hofstede is not in right now. But if you leave your name and phone number, your height, weight, religion, and of course, your favorite color, then he will return your call.”


It generated a lot of laughs, occasional bewildered frustration, and pleas from friends who had heard it a hundred times to take it down. But the message only came off my machine after I reluctantly landed a real job in the corporate world that necessitated a more professional greeting.

Gary Owens recorded the message for me after an interview I did with him in 1996, that was published in a magazine called Baby Boomer Collectibles. We stayed in touch for a while after that but I had not spoken to him in years prior to his passing in 2015. 

My thoughts returned to him the other day when I mentioned to someone that I was driving to California for the weekend, and would be staying in “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.” His recognition of that phrase, once familiar to just about everyone, marked him as a fellow classic TV fan.

It’s an expression some associate with the monologues of Johnny Carson, whose Tonight Show originated from NBC’s Burbank headquarters. But it was first coined by Gary Owens in the unique weather reports he delivered on his Los Angeles radio show (“It’s 80 degrees in romantic Reseda, 75 degrees in lascivious Laguna, and in beautiful downtown Burbank, it’s 500 degrees”).

But Burbank’s infamy did not enter the national lexicon until Gary Owens revived the phrase during his six-season run on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In

There are some perhaps that only remember him from that landmark series, with his striped suit and horn rimmed glasses, standing at an old-fashioned microphone, hand cupped to his ear, saying the silliest things in a mock serious tone.

“This just in – the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France is not made of Eiffel at all!”

“On this date in history, Snow White said to a well-known charming prince, “Dear, there are seven reasons I can’t marry you.”

John Chancellor is back in our NBC newsroom practicing a speech that is worthy of Cicero – or any other small town in Illinois.”

But Laugh-In was just one part of his entertainment legacy, and a small part at that, as well as one of the easiest jobs he ever accepted. As he revealed during our interview, they typically finished each episode in just two days – three, if the writers decided to play with Goldie Hawn by writing dirty words on her cue cards so she would giggle through 17 takes.

Owens, one of four cast members to appear in every episode (along with Dan Rowan, Dick Martin and Ruth Buzzi) taped his segments in the morning, then returned the following day for the weekly cocktail party sketch. At the same time, he was lending his voice to several cartoons and hosting a daily local radio show. 

One of his more famous promotions on KMPC Los Angeles was offering an autographed photo of the Harbor Freeway. “Fifty thousand people wrote in,” he recalled, “and we sent them a picture of the freeway signed at the bottom, ‘Yours truly, Harbor Freeway.’”

There isn’t a lot of Laugh-In available on DVD yet, but there are plenty of other ways to celebrate Mr. Owens’ remarkable career, starting with Roger Ramjet, one of the funniest cartoons ever created. Every episode of this 1965 lampooning of the military-industrial complex appeared as if it was made for about three dollars – the animation was so limited it made Clutch Cargo look like a Pixar film. But the writing was genius, and Owens’ portrayal of Roger was note-perfect. 

Got six minutes? Get ready to laugh.

Owens also lent his dulcet tones to characters like Space Ghost, Blue Falcon, and Powdered Toast Man on The Ren & Stimpy Show, and served as the narrator on The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. He also appeared in such Comfort TV series as McHale’s Navy, The Munsters, Batman and I Dream of Jeannie (when he was joined by Laugh-In alums Judy Carne and Arte Johnson in one of that show’s more memorable episodes). 

And if you still need one more reason to think fondly of this wonderful, whimsical talent, he also spearheaded a crusade to convince the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce that The Three Stooges deserved a star on the Walk of Fame. His efforts paid off in 1983. Owens has his own star on that famous sidewalk, located next to another man who gave us a few great cartoons, Walt Disney. 

I think I'll put that answering machine message back up – at least for a little while. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. On the 1984 album "Dick Clark Presents Radio's Uncensored Bloopers," Gary Owens was heard botching a commercial for Preparation H. Believe it or not, Mr. Owens was actually live on the air!

  3. Ha! I'm sure no one laughed more at the mistake than he did.