Ed Ruscha & Mason Williams: The Roger Miller Show Storyboards (1966)

Ed Ruscha & Mason Williams: The Roger Miller Show Storyboards (1966)

The Roger Miller Shoe (1966, 2 of 8 panels)

Various Cold Openings: The Roger Miller Show Storyboards

After accepting the invitation from his roommate to collaborate on storyboards for a NBC television program in development, Ed Ruscha contributed around 100 graphite, ink, gouache, and marker drawings (as work-for-hire) inside television-screen-shaped windows on pre-printed storyboard panels; all accompany story concepts by Mason Williams typed in rectangular windows below. The duo created a total of eight storyboards, depicting various cold openings for The Roger Miller Show, a music variety television program featuring country singer (and fellow Oklahoman), Roger Miller (“King of the Road”); the show aired Mondays opposite The Lucy Show in Fall 1966. The storyboards explore Ruscha and Williams’ shared interest in signs and word play: they include graphic titles, rolling credits, television logos, and words on shoeboxes, beer cans, airplane banners and roadside billboards. Considering that Williams rode shotgun on Ruscha’s seminal 1956 road trip from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, this work for television ten years later from these friends since childhood, was as improbable as it was serendipitous.

Two storyboards—The Roger Miller Shoe (1966, 8 panels) and Ice Box Canned Show (1966, 18 panels)—are exhibited for the first time ever at Alden Projects. Graphic wordplay and a road not taken by Ruscha takes center stage in this pair of self-reflexive storylines about packaging, commodification, and the disposability of popular culture.

The Roger Miller Shoe (1966) puts into analogy the packaging of shoeboxes with the packaging of television shows. Comprising eight graphite, gouache and marker panels, “the idea tapped into the way Ed Sullivan (east coast dialect) pronounced the word ‘show’ as ‘shoe,’” Mason Williams explains: “‘welcome to our shoe.’” The story begins with a large stack of shoeboxes. An accompanying text signals: “The shoe boxes have names on them representing TV shows.” A panel follows, depicting a close-up of a man’s hand tattooed with text in block letters “NBC PRESENTS”; this humorously impersonates the show’s opening credits, using a schoolboy’s mnemonic device. Next, a hand pulls out from the stack two individual boxes (e.g. television shows); each shoebox top is festooned with a graphic variation of “The Roger Miller Shoe” logos. The first is executed in lean and tasteful hand-scripted lettering. A second deploys a thick, serif script typeface to pictorialize the farcical logo devised by Ruscha, in which exaggeratedly raised serifs elevate the letters like platform heels on a shoe. The storyboard’s final panel reflects upon the function of a cold opening: Roger Miller bends over, ties his shoe, and “Roger or Announcer says ‘Something about starting off the show on the right foot.’”

Ice Box Canned Show (1966) comprises 18 graphite, gouache, and marker panels. Ruscha draws Roger Miller in pajamas at home, grabbing a beer out of a refrigerator; a later close-up depicts a scripted, “Roger Miller Show” logo on the side of the same beer. Next, a hand turns can to reveal entire credits of show. Music starts when the can is opened and gets louder as Roger pours.  Fantastically, the directions read: “Picture fills up (optical)” with the host apparently up to his waste in liquid. The story jumps to Roger Miller in a tuxedo performing on a television stage, pouring out a can of beer. After singing, the host—who, in certain panels, bears more than a faint resemblance to Ed Ruscha—throws away the can, as “Show finishes.” “Another 'packaging' presentation concept for the show,” Mason Williams recalls. “In this case, Roger (in pajamas) goes to the ice box (an appliance) as is a TV set. He grabs a can of Roger Miller Show (beer), opens it up, drinks it, and is transported with can in hand to his show on TV (another appliance).” The self-reflexive drama puts the cold opening of a television show into analogy with the cold opening of a beer: each is disposable. Surprisingly, the story continues with more action with Roger home again in pajamas. Waking up, he puts his thumb over the camera as the penultimate television-shaped window is blacked out in black marker by Ruscha (“cut to black,” the text below explains). The final, similarly blacked out panel accompanies drama in the dark, according to Williams’ directions below, with the host “bumping into chair or table ‘ouch!’ End of show.” The graphic interest in head-scratching typefaces and verbal quirks fits neatly into Ruscha’s graphic wheelhouse, while the sequence’s final, blacked out coda is accompanied by the protagonist’s exclamation: “ouch”; the latter echoes an onomatopoeia featured in one Ruscha’s early paintings, OOF (1963) now at MoMA, which hung in Williams and Tommy Smothers’ Los Angeles apartment during the 1960s.

NBC producers rejected all eight of the storyboards that Ruscha and Williams worked on between April and August 1966. “I made the drawings in The Roger Miller Show Storyboards in 1966 for Mason Williams,” Ruscha told Alden Projects. “Mason’s journal indicates that I received about $1,500 in payment from Mason personally (not from the network). That was a good chunk of change. Mason had recently been hired to write for television, and he used the storyboards to pitch his concepts to the network. I consider my drawings to be ‘work for hire’. After they saw them, the executives at the television network weren’t interested in the visual format of the storyboards, so that put an end to that.” 

Although a dead end, of sorts, for Ruscha, Williams drove on to become an Emmy award-winning television writer and celebrated musician—notably, as composer of the instrumental radio hit, “Classical Gas” (originally “Classical Gasoline”) (1968). Williams also found himself on other signal road trips with Ruscha during the 1960s. The Roger Miller Show Storyboards, in fact, were created coterminously with Ruscha, Williams, and Patrick Blackwell’s August 1966 road trip to Las Vegas memorialized in Royal Road Test—a spiral-bound, photographic, deadpan parable about the destruction of a typewriter thrown out the window of Williams’ sedan, speeding in the desert; (Ruscha is identified as “Driver”, and Williams as “Thrower”). For this signal artist’s book, issued the following year, Williams was both co-author and co-publisher.

Williams’ work, including Bus (1967)—a boxed 36-foot actual size screen print of a Greyhound Bus—was deeply influenced by his roommate’s singularly original vision. The respect between these kings of the road, however, travelled in both directions: Ruscha transformed Williams’ story, “How to Obtain the Maximum Amount of Pleasure from Eating Crackers,” into a storyboard for his own book, Crackers (1969)—later re-interpreted in Ruscha’s film, Premium (1971). Three of The Roger Miller Show Storyboards were pictured in a report about television and creativity presented by Mason Williams in person to the Federal Communications Commission in 1969 and subsequently published in book form as The Mason Williams Rapport (1969).

From the vantage of the present, The Roger Miller Show Storyboards belong to a larger body of creative dialogues between Williams and Ruscha from 1956 until 1971, the year Williams moved away from California. As Ken Johnson writes in a New York Times review of an exhibition at Alden Projects in 2015: Double Standard: Ed Ruscha and Mason Williams, 1956-1971 reveals a mutually inciting relationship comparable in some ways to that between Picasso and Braque in pre-World War I Paris.” OOF.

© Todd Alden 2019