Allow Me To Introducink Mineself…
My name is Craig L, and I’m a Toon-o-holic. (Everybody say “HI, CRAIG L”)
I was born a few days below the debut of “Captain Kangaroo”, “The Mickey Mouse Club” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, so I was destined to be a Child of Television, but as soon as I could make out those images on the screen, I was drawn to the ones that looked least like Real People. And it was a good time to do so. ‘The Club’ broke up the Mouseketeer action with classic Disney theatrical cartoons while ‘The Captain’ used the imaginatively minimal animation of “Tom Terrific” (and even Hitch had his little ‘cartoony’ logo)
My parents were serious about giving me a headstart on reading, so I was well supplied with the usual Golden Books, but also encouraged to get into the newspaper. “Peanuts” was coming into its greatness and had already been moved to a place of honor on Page 3 of the L.A. Times, while on the official comics page, most of the little kids where orphans from the adventurous “Annie” to the dramatic “Dondi” as well as the non-alliterate laughs of “Nancy”. “Dick Tracy” had its grotesque villains who “Li’l Abner” was parodying with ‘Fearless Fosdick’. There was even a Western in the funnies, “Rick O’Shay”, where everything was realistic and authentic, except the characters’ cartoony faces. That incongruity harmed its chances for success, but I loved it.
Meanwhile on the boob tube, Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera were gearing up their cartoon factory with “Huckleberry Hound”, “Yogi Bear” and another Western, “Quick Draw McGraw”. (Oddly, I never got into live-action TV westerns) And Jay Ward and Bill Scott totally captured my toon-loving heart with “Rocky and Bullwinkle”, not necessarily in that order, and all their supporting toons: “Fractured Fairy Tales”, “Peabody’s Improbable History”, “Dudley Do-Right”. No wonder I started ‘introducing mineself’ with Boris’ odd semi-Russian.
I was a student of cartoons as a kid, making up episode lists of all the shows I watched regularly (a challenge when “Bullwinkle” constantly swapped around the Peabodys and Dudleys) and worked on my drawing. At the age of 9, I put together a six-page proposal for a cartoon series complete with character designs and mailed it to the Hanna-Barbera Studios in Studio City (which my dad drove by on the way to work, lucky guy). A couple weeks later, I got a response: a Yogi Bear cartoon cel, autographed by… Yogi? It struck me wrong – they were not taking me seriously if they thought an autograph from a fictional character would satisfy me. I realize now how easily that discouraged me from my own artistic endeavors, but I still loved the cartoons, and had my opinions…
To me, the first anime import, “Astroboy”, was much better than the later, and more popular “Speed Racer”. When CBS started showing adventure toons, “The Lone Ranger” was superior to “Superman” (there I go with Westerns again). It took the live-action “Batman” to finally get me interested in superhero comic books But I had to overcome parental disapproval and given a choice what to fight for, I chose MAD Magazine.
I had other activities growing up that made the toons more of a passive interest. As an uncoordinated kid in an sports-dominated high school, I got seriously into The Band, which won more trophies in music competitions than the entire athletic department (Neener neener). But getting my tonsils removed after my Junior Year left me with a weak embouchure and the rest of the band yelling at me that I was always playing flat. But it also helped my voice change and when I entered college, I immersed myself into College Radio… it satisfied the frustrated musician by playing records of other people’s music, and the frustrated cartoonist by working on cartoony character voices. Of course, Craig wasn’t a funny enough name for the voices I made, so I went humorously alliterative and called myself Wendell Wittler.
My radio career took off in the weirdest way possible, weaseling my way into a talk radio station and becoming “that guy who’s always on hold” (somebody even made me a t-shirt) and ending up as Producer/Assistant/Sidekick to the shoulda-been-legendary personality ‘Sweet’ Dick Whittington, and accompanying him to London on the 4th of July 1977 on an intercontinental stunt. (LONG story, best told here.) that was, kinda sadly, the apex of my radio career, but before I totally gave up on the TV-without-pictures, I had the opportunity to write for the radio show of Gary Owens, who toonheads know better as the ORIGINAL voice of Space Ghost, Roger Ramjet and Ren & Stimpy’s Powdered Toast Man. (And I impressed him when I showed him that I KNEW that Roger Ramjet was NOT a Jay Ward cartoon.)
When his longtime radio home changed format to All-Talk but wanted to keep him in the afternoon drive timeslot, Garish recommended me (ME!) to be hired as his Producer/Assistant/Sidekick. Unfortunately, the station made it a ‘part-time one-dollar-over-minimum-wage’ gig and I, my wallet and my pride couldn’t do that.
At one point in the early 1980’s I even regularly checked the want ads in the Los Angeles Times (what they had before Craigslist), for work classified as “Writer”. Shockingly, I discovered an ad from “The People’s Almanac” (the series of pop reference books edited by Irving Wallace and his family) soliciting ideas for a second “Book of Lists”. I ended up getting paid for two lists (one of “crown princes”, the other of “musicians famous for something else”) that never got published, and was on their “B” list of contributors when they sent me a letter asking if I’d be interested in writing for a new project of theirs: “The People’s Almanac Presents the Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People”. The “Famous People” of the title were all deceased (avoiding various legal issues), most historically so. My first assignment was the pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and the editors provided me with research material – two biographies, 50 to 75 years old at the time. Being written long before anyone thought of publishing “Intimate Sex Lives” books, both volumes required a lot of ‘reading between the lines’ to extract much of a sexual biography. A couple weeks after I sent in my thousand words, I got back a tactfully worded request to rewrite it, in which the Assistant Editor (no relative of Irving Wallace) pointed out that I had failed to note that Schopenhauer had died of complications from syphilis. Obviously, I hadn’t read nearly enough between the lines. I felt like I had just flunked History, Philosophy, Creative Writing and Sex Education on the same day. Still, they let me write another piece about the more sexually notable Scottish poet Robert Burns. Nothing “gang aft agley” with that. But as one on a list of 55 ‘contributing writers’ listed on Page 7, it was not much of a start for a ‘serious’ writing career.
I got involved with the people at KROQ during its “Roq of the ’80s” glory days of bringing New Wave, Britpop and (on Sunday nights with Rodney Bingenheimer) Punk to L.A. radio, specifically writing and performing on a pseudo-news comedy show that aired BEFORE Rodney on Sundays, whose goal was to be “another Firesign Theater, or maybe Credibility Gap”. I replaced one of the original cast, an excellent writer and interesting guy named Michael Dare, who lived as an object lesson on how NOT to get famous, as “the guy who provided John Belushi’s drugs” in Bob Woodward’s book “Wired”. To this day, I respect Dare somuch more than I respect Woodward. And that’s speaking as a guy is annoyingly straight, ‘recreational substances’-wise, for the basic reason that I become a very serious, negative, even paranoid guy when even slightly ‘under the influence’ so I can only really have FUN (and write funny) when totally unmedicated. Another side effect of this quirk of body chemistry is that the only consumable vice that I enjoy is food, with obvious effects on my appearance and long-term health. But in the ’80s I wasn’t that fat, and working on the radio show, I found I couldn’t contribute much if I stayed in the ‘smoke-filled’ writer’s room, so I’d work independently in the office area, next to the secretary-lady who typed up the scripts. It was more fun out there with her anyway, ifyouknowwhatImean.
As the 1990s began, I got one more ‘radio gig’, writing for a syndicated ‘comedy service’ that made short produced ‘bits’ for lazy morning DJs all over the US. I was once again joining an existing team, but this time I was replacing a writer who left for a much better job, working for his then-wife, Roseanne. It was a gas, since I got to write fake commercials and movie trailers and even song parodies. I was one of the few people anywhere getting paid for what Weird Al Yankovic does (albeit at .0001% of the pay). I was most proud of my rather political re-imagining of Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina” as a vehicle for Oliver North: “Funky Cold Marine” (“I like to do / the Wild Thing to / the U.S. Constitution.”) We all worked independently and had a once-a-week Writers’ Meeting, one of the highlights being that one of the writers was also one of the performers, who did a lot of the celebrity voices and could ‘test read’ the material by the rest of us, giving me a chance to enjoy the fruits of my labor even if it was rejected. I was unaware that that writer/performer, Steve Stoliar, had worked for Groucho Marx during the comedy legend’s later years until he wrote a book about it years later. It’s semi-awesome thing to be ‘one-degree-of-separation’ from Roseanne, but far more awesome to be that close to GROUCHO.