Sketch Artists

”When I think about the pay scale we worked under back then,“ says Michael McKean, remembering the early ‘70s and the bad old good old days of his comic alma mater, the Credibility Gap, ”even adjusting for inflation we weren’t making anything. But we had some funny adventures. We opened for Richie Havens at the Long Beach Fox and had oranges thrown at us.“

”Well,“ says Harry Shearer, McKean‘s erstwhile Gapmate alongside David L. Lander and the late Richard Beebe, ”to be fair to the audience --“

”-- they were given the oranges coming in.“

”We were doing a sketch where Richard and I were playing Superman and Batman, appearing on a Cleveland talk show to promote the comic book industry’s anti-drug approach. And I think some of the people in the audience actually thought we were Superman and Batman --“

”-- telling them not to do drugs.“

”So they weren‘t throwing oranges at us.“

”They were throwing oranges at the idea, Harry. We just happened to be in the way.“

Given that the Credibility Gap -- whose career, roughly contemporaneous with the Nixon administration, will be celebrated November 16 at the Museum of Television and Radio -- disbanded nearly a quarter of a century ago, were little known outside Southern California and not all that widely inside it, the reader will be excused the question mark perhaps now forming above his head (though he easily might have encountered, without knowing the source, the group’s rock-concert variation on ”Who‘s on First?“ or their annual alternative Rose Parade commentary, or Osmond Brothers parody -- as the Asthma Brothers -- ”You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Hair“). Only the pathologically media-shy, however, will have avoided its members‘ later work, of sufficient cultural import to qualify their early collaboration as seminal: Shearer, the voice of Monty Burns, Ned Flanders and much of the rest of The Simpsons’ cast, and host and everything else of Le Show (about to begin its 17th year on KCRW and very much in the spirit of the Gap); Shearer and McKean, two-thirds of Spinal Tap, the renowned mock ‘n’ roll band; McKean and Lander, a.k.a. Lenny and Squiggy of Laverne and Shirley fame; and all with film and television credits really too numerous to mention.

Like the Firesign Theater, another L.A.-based countercultural comedy foursome, with whom they were regularly confused and who also played with the cliches of mass media (though to psychedelic-surrealist rather than topical-satiric ends), the Gap took root on local youth radio in the late ‘60s, in a guard-changing moment. ”It was a great opportunity,“ Shearer observes, ”because the only time you can do anything interesting is when people who don’t know what they‘re doing have a moment of insight and realize they don’t know what they‘re doing; that’s when you can try to sneak in. And later, all these FM stations that had been broadcasting foreign-language and religious programming suddenly got taken over by kids -- which couldn‘t happen in TV, couldn’t happen in movies. Not until the early days of cable and then the Internet was there a similar moment of freedom in any other mass media.“

The Credibility Gap began in 1968 at the Pasadena-based KRLA-AM, the brainchild, says Shearer, of ”Lou Irwin, a great radio news writer, and guys who had just been in the news department, smoking dope and going, ‘We should do something different.’ They had a good initial run, but they didn‘t have the chops to back it up with more,“ and within a couple of years the troupe was professionalized into its ”classic“ lineup: Shearer, a former child actor with a background in journalism and politics; Richard Beebe, a newsman since the ’50s, who‘d also studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse; Lander, a sketch comedian brought in as a replacement once ”when everyone had the flu“; and finally McKean, a friend of Lander’s from the Carnegie Tech theater department. After a couple of years, they moved to KPPC, over on the FM dial.

They worked fast, producing from 15 minutes to half an hour of new material five days a week, pursuing the daily news to its absurd logical conclusions, and pursuing those who reported it as well. When a TV editorial called for safer driving, the Gap responded: ”Channel 2 claims that safe driving is in some way a desirable goal for society; this position completely ignores the documented value of reckless driving as a form of self-expression.“ They specialized in elaborate playlets, like ”Swarm of Terror,“ inspired by the earliest reports of killer bees; ”Kingpin,“ which recast the life of Martin Luther King Jr. as a blaxploitation film; and ”The Sam Yorty Story: Bus Ride to Destiny,“ profiling the city‘s famously peripatetic mayor. (”Hiya, mayor! Back so soon?“ ”Not for long, Ben!“) Much of their work lampooned by affecting to celebrate, and as good actors imagining their targets from the inside, they lent dignity even to those they sought to demolish.

”The most interesting thing,“ Lander recalls, ”was, you would play in the course of a week as many as 15 different characters. Actors were trained with the idea that in a perfect world they’d do repertory theater, so I felt, ‘Wow, this is my repertory.’“ At KRLA, they produced three 10-minute shows a day, until a survey revealed that many listeners were listening only to the Gap, and management switched them to 10 three-minute shows a day. ”Which was terrible -- you couldn‘t do a sketch with any teeth in it, because you were always looking at the clock.“ It also necessitated occasional use of ”The Q-bomb,“ a machine the station had acquired, Shearer recalls, ”to speed up the music without changing the pitch so they could sneak in an extra two commercials every hour; when it arrived and they tested it, they found out it had the additional quality of making the music sound like it was being played underwater. So the only people who used the machine were us, because we were limited to three minutes, no more, and if a sketch came out long we just ran it through the Q-bomb. No one has heard comedy performed at this speed before or since.“

”In many ways,“ says David Lander, ”I think the Gap was such a utopian world, it prepared us in no way for real show business.“ At underground KPPC there was no Q-bomb needed; they were on once a day, somewhere around 6 o’clock, for more or less 15 minutes. When their stint there ended in 1971 as part of a mass firing, they took their act to the stage and the recording studio, but ”after the radio it was an uphill fight.“ Their recollections of the final phase of the career suggest that This Is Spinal Tap is a record of firsthand experience. At their second gig, at the Troubadour, ”we learned we would be best advised not to use lavaliere microphones with long thick cords that we could trip over.“ (”It was like a licorice-whip festival,“ nods McKean.) At the Giant Pickle Barrel, a delicatessen-coffeehouse where, McKean remembers, ”to make it look more like a closed deli they turned off all the lights in the storefront,“ their only audience was the opening act. Not that it was all bad; in 1974, the summer of the Watergate finale, they played the Ash Grove for a month. ”It was a great time,“ says McKean. ”The day Nixon resigned, we had a sketch that night that opened with Harry as Nixon sitting on the floor putting trophies in a box and singing, The party‘s over . . .“

They produced occasional specials for KMET-FM, and there was talk of a regular spot, but, says Shearer, the station ”went with a ’hip newscast‘ style, which was basically just stories about rock music and drugs.“ Their relationship with their record company mysteriously soured; they were pelted with oranges. ”It was all boulders and no road after a while.“ And little money. Lander recalls ”people like Jim Brooks coming to see us, people who were producing real [television] shows, and they would come backstage and say, ’I‘d love to use you on our show, but I don’t want to break up the Gap.‘ And it was almost like, ’Fuck you! Break up the fucking Gap.‘“

Beebe, who died of lung cancer last year, left the group in 1975 to return to radio, and a year later, in Shearer’s words, ”the group left the group.“ Bigger if not necessarily better things came along -- Laverne and Shirley. Spinal Tap. Unsatisfactory stints on Saturday Night Live. Those aforementioned credits too numerous to mention. Their reunion this week comes two years after one at HBO‘s Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, where, Shearer says, ”a lot of people who had heard about us and never seen us were in the audience, and it was a gratifying moment.“ At the Museum of Television and Radio, the Gap redux will perform live and play old audio- and videotapes (including a takeoff on Tom Snyder’s show, performed on Tom Snyder‘s show). Questions will be fielded, answers given. Honor ultimately accorded. There will be no oranges.

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