Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gary Burbank: Radio comedy and my Memories

Photobucket This biography on Gary Burbank was released a few weeks ago...written by Greg Hoard, a local sportscaster, it's called Voices In My Head. For the curious, the reason the book has this title it's because Burbank's a skilled satirist and has a gift of mimicry. The characters that populated his radio programs grew into popular figures...a lot of times the characters were so convincing that some listeners assumed they were real at first.

When you read the book, or skim the many pages and look at the pictures, you'll learn the life and times of a popular Midwest DJ turned radio personality. Born Billy Purser, his first on-air name was Bill Williams. Afterward he began calling himself Johnny Apollo...who spoke with a decidedly edgy/groovy style. After creating a following as Johnny Apollo he became Gary Burbank in the late '60s. This name was inspired by radio DJ Gary Owens and the TV show Owens acted as the announcer for, Laugh-In, whose one of many catch-phrases was "beautiful, downtown Burbank". So, Gary and Burbank were combined. Ironically, though, Burbank's natural voice is similar to that of Gary Owens.

A lot of what you read here is my own thoughts from hearing Gary Burbank on the radio throughout the 1990's and into the 2000's. I still encourage those who know of the man to buy this book.

Burbank's legend was cemented at WLW radio in Cincinnati for 26 years, 1981-2007. His career, though, took off on WAKY radio in Louisville, KY and his popularity continued to soar during his stays at CKLW in Detroit-Windsor and WHAS in Louisville, KY. Along the way he did radio work at WNOE, KLPL, plus KUZN, WWUN, and WMPS. It was during Burbank's stay at WHAS that he enjoyed having a single hit the Hot 100. The song was "Who Shot J.R?" all about the Dallas cliff-hanger that fixated TV audiences throughout the summer of 1980.

Burbank won several awards for his radio work...including two Marconi Awards which some consider the Emmy or the Grammy of the radio industry. The list of characters that Gary brought to life all had a distinct personality and almost always there was an unusual or quirky character trait that made the characters durable. According to the book, the earliest character named 'Reverend Deuteronomy Skaggs' came about after an ordeal Gary went through with a studio packed with a religious group. The Reverend remained a core character for the rest of Burbank's years on radio. Then there were the bizarre characters of 'Eunice and Bernice' who were described by Burbank as Siamese twins joined at the telephone. This routine was recorded in advance and played back on the air as Burbank pretended to being taking a phone call...he would react to the taped out-bursts of the sisters who said just about anything.

A lot of the insane characters that Burbank voiced were recorded over a telephone in rehearsal and played back on-air under the disguise of a phone conversation with Burbank setting up the punchlines that the "caller" would inevitably deliver. This routine of Burbank "answering" the phone and hearing outrageous commentary on the other end would reach an all-time high in my opinion when the 'Synonymous Bengal' character came along. For this sketch, Burbank spoke in broken English and used sound-a-like words to replace other words in an effort to point out how stupid the character was. The absurdity of the caller referring to himself as the 'Synonymous Bengal' when he meant 'Anonymous Bengal' is what made it funnier because this character would call up and mangle the English language and pass along gossip but he wished to remain "synonymous". It was a skit that was way out there...of course it was rooted in local comedy and the Cincinnati Bengals.

In addition to Reverend Skaggs, Eunice and Bernice, and the Synonymous Bengal you'd also hear at various times Ranger Bob, Gilbert Gnarley, Lars Peevey, Big Fat, Howlin' Blind, Dan Buckles, Ed Harley...Burbank also spoofed local politicians and he'd spoof national politicians and celebrities if they happened to perk the curiosities of the local audience. Among the impressions Burbank was noted for were Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Paul Harvey, Jerry Springer, Dwight Tillery, and Tony Perez. Fake commercials was another treat. At one point in the series Weasel became a favorite subject to poke fun at. In the commercials it was referred to as "the other yellow meat" in a spoof of Pork. Jerry Springer's talk-show was spoofed a lot when it was a local program.

One character came along in the mid 1980's that remained a daily feature on his radio show...Earl Pitts. In the book you will learn why Earl's commentaries always start off with his familiar catch-phrase. Earl's commentary is usually 5 minutes long...sometimes they're 6 minutes. They typically aired at 3:23 or 3:25pm Monday-Friday on WLW and it would repeat at 5:23 or so.

When I became aware of Burbank his show was on from 2-6pm on WLW. During school I wasn't able to catch the first hour of his show but I'd listen almost religiously from 3pm onward. I was introduced to Burbank's radio program, and WLW radio, via my grandfather in 1991. He listened to talk-radio and WLW was and is a popular station and he started listening to it and I heard the station for the first time in 1991. So...getting back to Burbank's time-slot...when the summer came around and I was able to hear the first hour I realized that the show was broken into two segments: the first run and the re-run.

What I mean by that is how the skit's and routines would play out. Gary and his on-air partner, Kevin "Doc" Wolfe, were once on in the mornings at WLW. They were later put on in the mid-afternoon slot, 2-6pm, which is when I discovered them. The comedy bits that would pop up on the show within the 2:30-4pm time frame would be re-ran during the 4:30-6pm time frame. The reason? I suppose it was because a lot of people were still at work during the 2-4pm hours or they didn't get out of work until 4:30 or 5 and so the comedy bits that aired between 2:30 and 4 would get replayed for the people leaving work at the later time.

Sometimes the two were aided by Leah Burns who was called "Princess Leah" on the air. She played the legitimate female voices. Sometimes Burbank or Doc would play a female character with a stereotypical falsetto voice. Doc, by the way, was the voice of Barbara Bush whenever needed. Burbank was the voice of local news anchor Carol Williams from time to time. Leah was the voice of Hillary Clinton, Pearl Pitts, Sister Lamaze and the character of Portia Lynn Commode...a co-anchor with Dan Buckles. Portia was a spoof of Diane Sawyer and the character's name, Portia Lynn Commode is an obvious pun on porcelain commode. Doc portrayed a third co-anchor, Donald Samuelson, spoofing Sam Donaldson. Dan Buckles, of course, was a spoof of David Brinkley but with a hilarious twist: Buckles was a cross-dresser easily slipping from news reporting to commenting on his latest lingerie. As an added chuckle, Buckles depended so much on reading his scripts word for word that if a word was half-written he'd stop talking, you'd hear sound effects of ruffling paper, and he'd continue on with the second part of the word.

If a Monday-Friday show wasn't enough, fans could hear all of the weeks comedy bits played out on Saturday mornings from 8am until 12pm. This four hour program was called "The Burbank Saturday Morning Cartoons" where Leah Burns from 8-10am and Janine Coil from 10am-12pm would play music and air a week's worth of Burbank comedy bits throughout the morning. This style of program would later exit the airwaves when WLW stopped playing music on the weekends and went to all-talk all the time. A similar review of his comedy bits would later surface under the guise of "Burbank's Weekly Rear View". A BBC acronym was applied to Burbank's show during it's run on WLW. In this case BBC stood for 'The Broadbank Burbcasting Corporation'. As the 1990's wore on Leah Burns departed the show. Doc left the show in 1999 after an 18 year on-air partnership with Burbank, 1981-1999. Doc's on-air role on the show was taken over by 'Duke Sinatra' and the show coasted to it's eventual end in December 2007. By the time the show ended Burbank had been performing from a studio in Florida while the rest of his cast were in the WLW studios in Ohio. Amazingly, though, the show came off sounding as if everyone was all together in one studio.

Some of the recurring skits/comedy bits from the show could carry a local or national flavor. Among the many were...

Bush-Man and Quayle: self-explanatory; this was a political spoof of Batman and Robin featuring George Bush and Dan Quayle in the title roles.

First Family Ties: This was a spoof of domestic comedies featuring parodies of Bill, Hillary, and Chelsey Clinton.

Blues Break: This sketch aired on Friday and it featured Burbank as Howlin' Blind Muddy Slim. It was a respectable routine where Howlin' Blind would play blues songs...usually pieces of them. It was one of the only routines where it came off genuine and not a satire or a parody. This most likely is because in real life Burbank loves that kind of music.

The Boys In the Huddle: This was a lesser-known sketch spoofing the Cincinnati Bengals. There would be a 5 minute episode that aired on a Friday prior to the Sunday game. The episode would repeat during the Bengals pre-game radio show. There would then be a follow-up episode on Monday commenting on the loss or the win.

All My Bengals: This was the better-known sketch spoofing the Bengals. It would air on Friday's and Monday's during football season. One of the trademarks of the sketch was Burbank's long drawn-out delivery of the word "well". He'd sometimes stretch the word out to last at least 10 seconds... "wellllllllllllllllllll....".

ABCD News: In this sketch, news reporters Ed Harley, Fern Groto, and Bob Fishgill would deliver and comment on the news in an amateurish way. Burbank, Leah, and Doc participated in the sketch. In a separate routine Burbank and company could be heard as Dan Buckles, Portia Lynn Commode, and Donald Samuelson.

Vinyl Siding Theatre: Hosted by Big Fat, this sketch spoofed Saturday and Sunday matinee movie shows where a movie would air and during commercial breaks you'd see people trying to sell useless products before saying something like "...and now back to this weeks featured movie...". In Burbank's sketch, Big Fat is the brash host of a show that's so cheap he has to pretend he's the entire cast. The joke is that he has to talk to himself in different voices in order to create a conversation. His catch-phrase was "smooch, smooch".

Dwight Guy and Dave Man: This routine ran while Dwight Tillery was the mayor of Cincinnati, 1991-1993. Dwight's predecessor, Dave Mann, had the perfect super hero name.

The Reds and the Restless: Featuring authentic soap opera style theme music, this routine spoofed the Cincinnati Reds during baseball season. It wasn't a daily sketch but it would air periodically during the spring, summer, and fall. The restless in the title referred to the restless fans who wanted a winning team.

The Young Joe Nuxhall Chronicles: Doc took center stage on this routine. Doc spoofed Joe Nuxhall while Burbank was often heard as Reds TV commentator, Gordy 'Hey Buddy' Coleman.

Again, a lot of what you read are my own thoughts about Burbank's radio program with a mix of commentary about the book that's available. The likes of Burbank will perhaps never exist again and this book will let you in on all the behind the scenes goings-on, all the up's and downs of someone who rose through the ranks of radio from small market to large market during a 40 plus year career.

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