Critic's Notebook

The sound of 'Laugh-In's' Gary Owens was the sound of Los Angeles

The sound of Gary Owens, the announcer and voice artist who died Thursday at home in Encino, was a sound of Los Angeles in the 1960s and '70s: classic and customized, finely tuned and casually flamboyant, like a pinstriped suit on the one hand and a pinstriped car on the other.

Before and after and alongside his best-known role, as the on-camera announcer for NBC's "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," he was on local radio, KFWB and KMPC, back when radio helped define a city, before the rise of corporate programmers and syndicated packages. It was a medium that was friendly to eccentrics, to running gags and recurring casts of oddballs; it gave you the sense that there was a party going on just on the other side of the speakers, not that far away. You could probably drive there.

Owens was a baritone, though not of the rumbling or stentorian sort -- something between adventure-serial narration and the crushed-velvet tones of a late-night jazz jockey, rather. On "Laugh-In," he stood in a sound booth with one hand cupping an ear in what was clearly an "old radio" pose even to those who knew little about old radio, or cupped ears. He served a role not unlike what Don Pardo provided not long afterward for "Saturday Night Live," juxtaposing a smooth, schooled professionalism with the show's we're-all-mad-here marriage of late-Beat hipsterism and flower-powered grooviness.

In this context, his training and the tradition in which he worked made Owens seem older than he was -- he was only in his early 30s in 1968, when "Laugh-In" began, and younger by more than a decade than either of its hosts. But the announcer, who had written scripts for Jay Ward's "Rocky & Bullwinkle" and featured characters on his own radio show with Marxian/Fieldsean names like Endocrine J. Sternwallow and Merganthaler Waisleywillow, brought his own brand of craziness to the table; he had a fondness for nonsense words -- "insegrevious," "krenellemuffin," "creebling," "veister" and "krelb," all given weight and reality by dint of his instrument.

Indeed, "Laugh-In" hired to him play a character he had already created, and continued to play in various ways, in various venues, for many years afterward: the announcer as comic, the comical announcer, a serious voice that didn't take itself too seriously. He played Space Ghost, too, and sundry other cartoon characters; it seems only natural, and not at all insegrevious.

Robert Lloyd creebles and tweets @LATimesTVLloyd

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