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.