How Gary Owens Became an Iconic Announcer on 'Laugh-In'

Courtesy of Photofest
Gary Owens on 'Laugh-In'

An accidental meeting in a men's room led producer George Schlatter to hire him to counter his star's run-on monologues.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Gary Owens' role as the off-the-wall announcer on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In was a highlight that has become part of broadcasting history.

Owens, who died Thursday at 80, will always be remembered as he cupped his hand over his ear and provided the voice of the comedy show that reinvented comedy.

When he got the job just before the series launched in 1968 — and made comedy history — Owen's "audition" was anything but standard, recalls George Schlatter, now 82, who was the hit show's creator and executive producer.

Schlatter's offices at the time were just across the street from the Smokehouse Restaurant in Burbank, which was not far from what was then NBC Studios, where Laugh-In was shot.

"I was standing in the men's room at the Smokehouse," Schlatter recalled on Friday, "and I was peeing. Gary Owens came in and stood beside me and said, 'Hi George.' I said, 'What?' and he said [raising his voice], 'Hi George.' "

Schlatter (pictured at right) knew Owens at the time as the star of a popular radio show on KMPC in Los Angeles and for his work doing voiceovers and commercials.

"I said," continued Schlatter, " 'That's wonderful.' He said, 'What's that?' I said, 'The sound of your voice.' He said, 'Yeah, the acoustics in here.' I said, 'That's what I want you to do.' He said, 'What do you mean? You want me to pee?' "

"I said, 'No, I want you to be my announcer,' " added Schlatter with a booming laugh. " 'Put your thumb in your ear and say, Ladies and gentlemen, welcome.' " I said, 'That's it. I want you to do that.' "

"He said, 'You want me to pee and to put my thumb in my ear?' I said, 'No! Just talk.' "

"At that point, Rowan and Martin's monologues rambled," added Schlatter. "They just went on and on and on. I said, 'What I want you to do is I want you to say, Meanwhile, in another part of town,' and then we cut to the next thing, and we go to the party [a regular feature on the show]."

"He said, 'You want me to say that?' I said, 'Yeah. I want you to say, 'Later the masked man turned to his faithful Indian companion and said…' And then we go to the party."

"So that was it," said Schlatter with another laugh. "Without Gary Owens, Rowan and Martin would have gone on endlessly."

Schlatter said for those who want to see Owens on the best of Laugh-In, he has just compiled six hours of the greatest shows, which are about to be offered to the public.