I wanted to tell you about this group I was in. I’m just taking it from my entrance, though there’s an origin story worth researching.
I flew into Los Angeles on February 11, 1970, my first trip to California and the farthest from home I’d been. First movie on a plane, too. Ice Station Zebra. I was greeted at the airport by David Lander’s wife, Thea, who stuck a lit joint in my mouth and whisked me off to West Hollywood in her aqua-and-white Nash Metro. It had been twelve Fahrenheit in New York. It was sixty-eight here. Farewell, Ice Station Manhattan.
My college pal David Lander was working on KRLA-AM radio as part of The Credibility Gap, LA’s satirical radio news team. He’d suggested I come to the Coast and see if I might work out as a guest on the Gap’s daily broadcast. I had made a few bucks singing nursery rhymes; more about that, never. So I bought me plane ticket.
Thea had set me up in a sub-sublet on West Knoll Drive. I liked my new digs fine, which is to say there was a bottle of rosé in the refrigerator. I had never seen anything ruddier than a Chablis in a fridge and I found this unspeakably exotic.
That night, David and Thea took me to the famous Ash Grove on Melrose to see a lovely singer-songwriter, Penny Nichols, who was also the girlfriend of Harry Shearer, one of David’s comrades-in-shtick on the radio. I had heard Harry’s voice on some tapes David had sent me, and it took more than a few minutes to sync the rich, radio-bred tones with the T-shirted long-hair before me.
A few days later, I guested on the Credibility Gap broadcast and had a splendid time. I met Richard Beebe, the other permanent Gap member. Richard was KRLA’s news director, bearded and genial, a cool head from way back. I liked the game of rip-the-story, find-the-angle and bring-the-funny we were playing: Harry at the typewriter, fingers flying, the three of us circling the cauldron, throwing in the odd newt’s-eye. I pitched a few jokes, and onto the air they went with everyone else’s. Thrilling!
As a guest actor/writer, I went into rotation with such worthies as Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks, Avery Schreiber, Morgan Upton, Carl Gottlieb and the soon-gone, irreplaceable Chris Ross. I wrote a song or two every week, but the sketch was the thing: premise to punch line in jig time, run off some copies, pile into the booth, and get that shit ON TAPE and ON THE AIR!
I continued as a frequent guest until the iconoclastic Gap trod on managerial toes once too often. A sketch about Justice Earl Warren’s toothless Kent State probe went on the air while we listened in the newsroom. Just as our alt-universe Justice Warren began announcing his finding (war protester deaths were the work of “Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone”), the broadcast volume dipped to zero. The punch line was just too something for the tastemakers upstairs, so the sketch aired sans ending, fast-faded like a Duane Eddy b-side. We hit the ceiling and headed for the booth to berate the hapless d.j., who was only following orders, but the Gap’s days were numbered. We were told, and I quote, that the times were “too serious for humor”, and KRLA devolved into a replica of every other top-40 station in town.
But the Gap had landed a deal with Capitol Records. I was still a freelancer but worked with David, Richard and Harry on the album Woodshtick and More. The title conceit was a comedy festival in upstate New York, hosted by Freddie Herbie (David Lander’s Borsht Belt comic) and linking sketches from the radio show, as well as newer pieces. I was consigned to write a CSN&Y-style “Woodshtick” anthem which we recorded in the iconic Capitol Tower in Hollywood. Thrilled again!
1971 kicked off with a new radio gig at KPPC-FM in Pasadena. We were pretty much given free-reign on the underground hookup, no censorship beyond the obvious words Brother Carlin later codified for us all. Shows were roughly fifteen minutes long and went on roughly at 6 PM. We wrote much of the material at our office in Pasadena’s Realty Building. As we labored to turn cold, hard news into laughs, it was somehow comforting to refer to the place exclusively as “The Reality Building”.
This behavior continued until early autumn, when regime-change struck. Again. It was a clean sweep: the Heads were cast out and the Suits re-entered with a regimen of safe, squishy rock. Again.
I was now an official member of The Credibility Gap, a full partner facing an iffy future in the LA radio market. We did some specials for KMET-FM including our alternative-audio Rose Parade coverage and the commemorative special, “J. Edgar Hoover: Too Proud to Die, Too Dead To Live”.
Meanwhile, we planned our transition to the stage, writing new stuff and adapting sketches for club and concert bookings. We broke the seal on the live act on February 25, 1972, at the Bristol Bay Trading Company, i.e., the Cal State Long Beach cafeteria. After school hours, it became a coffee house, booking blues artists, folkies and the odd satirical outfit.
Over the next few years, the Credibility Gap headlined at some venues while opening for a baffling array of acts elsewhere: John Denver, Richie Havens, John Kay, Tom Rush…Furry Lewis, for God’s sake. We also made another album, this one for Warner Brothers. A Great Gift Idea was recorded at Amigo Studio in North Hollywood. New sketches included “Kingpin”, a Blaxploitation trailer for a sassy MLK biopic; “A Date With Danger”, a high school educational film highlighting the shame of social disease; and “Where’s Johnny?”, an epic Carson/Tonight Show time capsule. But just before cooking up the album, we obliged the WB promo staff with a yuletide “Rock Oreo”, a freebie for the Warner family that resulted in some head scratching in the front office. The aforementioned Penny Nichols aces the title role.
We hit the road to promote Gift Idea. Harry referred to our circuit as the “Bermuda Triangle tour”: San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Austin, New York. Tour support from WB was underwhelming, as is often the case when product is not flying off the shelves. We parted company with the firm and continued live work in clubs, including a month-long stay at the Ash Grove, just as the Nixon White House went all Gotterdammerung on us. The times were just serious enough for humor.
We wrote radio spots and record commercials, did a few music-related specialty gigs. Richard Beebe left the act early in 1975. We soldiered on as a trio, doing clubs and college dates while David and I moonlighted as part of Roger Bowen’s polyglot improv company at the Pitchell Players (formerly the good old Ash Grove).
That summer, we went on the road with Fred Willard and George Memmoli, doing our own stuff plus Fred & George’s Ace Trucking Company material. We played Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, Milwaukee’s Summerfest, and a dinner theater in Valparaiso, Indiana.
One of our Gap pieces centered on Harry’s brilliant Tom Snyder impression. Word got back to NBC’s Tomorrow show and to Tom himself, who invited us to perform the sketch to his face, so to speak. We did so, getting a nice ripple of attention and a perfectly good piece of Gap on the air.
Late in ‘75, the three of us were hired to write on our friend Penny Marshall’s new show, Laverne and Shirley. She and her then husband, Rob Reiner, were fans of a two characters David and I had been doing since our teens and had just recently introduced into the Gap’s live shows. Lenny and Squiggy inveigled their way into the first script we worked on, just as Penny expected they might.
Things happened, the world rotated, and the Credibility Gap became history. We had tiptoed all around national recognition, getting lots of love from our smart and loyal fans, but never quite cracking the big time.
Check out harryshearer.com for a few tasty artifacts from the Time Gapsule. He’s got a ton of the radio stuff archived; maybe someday he’ll open the vault. For what its worth, A Great Gift Idea and a collection of radio sketches, The Bronze Age of Radio have been reissued (without our permission) on CD. Steal a copy if you can.
Hi Michael, how nice to see a photo of my beloved (and very missed) father that I hadn’t seen before! The Great Roger Bowen indeed. I also remember the Pitchell Players, its members were a huge part of my childhood and many continued (and continue) to have a presence in my family’s life. And just to clarify, while my dad was a part of the group, it was actually my mother’s company (Ann Bowen). She was its creator/founder/director, the O.G. so to speak. Anyway, I love your website, and you’ve always been a favorite of mine and of my folks. -Katie Bowen
C’mon McKean – try being more self-deprecating with your politics back then, and not so serious! You guys were proven wrong, ideologically, in the past 47 years on virtually every social issue, as well meaning as you were. Also, regarding Kent State, two things are pretty important for your uninformed reader: (1) The North Vietnamese were murderous, violent, communists killing everyone in site. Then they started sneaking through Cambodia, a country held together by twigs and twine, to kill Americas – lots of Americans. So, the President of the United States ordered B-52 sorties to kill these communists who had been burning villages, and killing Americans. Well, (2) the knee-jerk, extreme –Left polluting our campuses at that time, particularly Kent State, decided that the North Vietnamese SHOULD kill American soldiers by sneaking across Cambodia. And those students rioted, and violently occupied the Dean’s Office, and then burned a ROTC Recruiting Center to the ground. The National Guard was called in to quell the student’s violence, and they refused to obey orders and indeed attacked the U.S. Army National Guard – ample video of this – and then in the midst of this student violence directed at the Guardsmen a loud crack was heard like a gun-shot, as this soldiers were being pelted. In all, a couple soldiers, thinking they were being shot at (because of the noise and the missiles violent hurled at them) opened fire, and four of the violent protestors were dead. That is Kent State, and that became, rather repugnantly, a cause celeb for the extremist, anti-American Left Wing. Look, have your fun, with Nixon and Hoover, and all that, but for the love of God, show some love for my country, and common decency, and admit how ridiculous you people were back then with your long hair, asinine political follies, and vulgar anti-Americanism.
So, McKean, tell your stories, but keep your radical, liberal politics out of it. When you mention your political angle back then at least acknowledge how silly and demonstrably wrong you naive hippies were at the time (hint: don’t even try to bring up Civil Rights since that was done and dusted years before your anti-American rants and radio skits). Thank you.
Eddie, I would very much like to subscribe to your newsletter. I prefer that it be typed out on an American-made typewriter and carefully mimeographed by the good Christian women down at the Presbyterian Church. Can you ensure that your views are wholesome and fulsome while maintaining a robust sense of self-entitlement? That’s what my grandmother and I shoot into our veins every single day. God Bless you and Keep You.
Great to read about this. I was a student at Caltech in Pasadena in the early 1970s, and the Credibility Gap was well-known. We thought of you and Firesign Theater as being in competition. I have an old LP of “A Great Gift Idea”. My father was a writer and had been on the “Tonight Show” staff in the era when Tiny Tim was married on air, so “Where’s Johnny” was especially appreciated. Thanks for writing.
Richard Beebe had a voice born to do radio news. It was one of the most distinguished sounding ones I ever heard. My dad was a habitue of the Ash Grove in the early 1960s. There he met, and became friends with, the great blues artist Jesse Fuller. From then on, every time Jesse came to town, we had him to our house for dinner. He loved my mom’s fried chicken. That, as you might expect, is one of my fondest childhood memories.
This was the first time I’ve ever seen a picture of him. The face matches the voice.