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Look that up in your funk and wagnalls!

We developed Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in the 1960s and went on the air with the series in January 1968. That was the "sexy sixties" of the Beatles, the pill, miniskirts and when girls began to get rid of their brassieres. But then, as now, America desperately needed a comedy panacea or release valve for the tensions building up through an unwinnable war in Vietnam, an unpopular president in Lyndon B. Johnson, student unrest that would lead to the Kent State shootings, racial conflict that prompted the protests of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and their assassinations, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his senator/brother and presidential candidate, Bobby.

Today, similar problems exist, in my opinion, and one way to help ease tension is through laughter. When people are laughing they are not throwing punches or bombs.

Tensions in the 1960s were released somewhat through the satirical comedy of Lenny Bruce, Tom Lehrer, and Jonathan Winters, for example, and That Was the Week That Was, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and Laugh-In.

Because no one at NBC understood the format of Laugh-In, we were given more freedom than any other program. Plus, the show was very cheap to make ($125,000 per week). And NBC had nothing to put on Monday night opposite CBS' powerhouse lineup of Lucille Ball and Gunsmoke anyway. So we did pretty much what we wanted.

But that meant the first commitment to us was for only 14 weeks, a half-season, to allow the network to find the replacement. So we were in fact cancelled before we ever went on the air. Therefore, the success of Laugh-In was a total surprise.

Editor's note: Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In garnered many plaudits during a storied run on American prime-time TV in a tumultuous epoch. The show ranked No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for its first two seasons in 1968-69 and 1969-70. The collaged barrage of humor, which began as a one-shot special in September 1967, also won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Musical or Variety Series in 1968 and 1969, plus other accolades, before signing off in May 1973.

Amid sit-ins, love-ins, and teach-ins, the NBC network presented a laugh-in, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications' website. Cohosted by the nightclub comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Laugh-In applied burlesque and vaudeville to psychedelia and mod over a fast-paced hour. The antics, fusing the time-honored and the cutting edge, featured one-liners, non sequiturs, double-entendres, sight gags, slapstick, pratfalls, blackout sketches, wacky graphics, wry commentary, fake news (of the past, present and future), a cocktail party serving quips, a joke wall out of which the cast popped to crack wise, the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award for unworthy accomplishments of the day, and bikini-clad dancers whose flesh was painted with slogans. The parade of caricatures from the ensemble included Arte Johnson's old letch, Henry Gibson's flower-power poet, and Ruth Buzzi's pocketbook-flailing spinster. Other up-and-comers such as performers Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin and writer/impresarios Lome Michaels and Chris Bearde sharpened their skills as company members. Marquee entertainers, top athletes, and public figures delivered cameos.

Laugh-In's catch phrases entered the country's lexicon, for instance, "Sock it to me!" and the title of this article. Reaching 50 million viewers weekly at the height of its popularity, Laugh-In captured "the Zeitgeist of the era" and "transformed television" in the process, summarized PBS about its 2011 retrospective on the "revolutionary" show. The hyperactive happening "redefined what could be done on television," stated a 2008 New York Times obituary for Martin, and "made conventional television variety programs seem instantly passe and the sitcom brand of humor seem too meek for the times."

George Schlatter co-created Laugh-In and was an executive producer for every season but the last. In what follows, he reminisces about the trailblazing show, which in June came in at No. 89 on the Writers Guild of America's list of the 101 best-written TV series.

"Very interesting"--Johnson's Wolfgang, the German soldier

The only "names" in the cast were Rowan and Martin, an opening act very popular in Las Vegas. After the great comedian Ernie Kovacs died in 1962, I created a show with his widow, frequent costar and all-around entertainer, Edie Adams, for the Riviera Hotel. Rowan and Martin opened for her. When NBC and the sponsor Timex agreed to put Laugh-In on the air, they insisted on an "acceptable" emcee, in one of the few prerequisites we faced. Since Laugh-In was not designed as a standard variety show, Rowan and Martin worked well because their patter act was fragmented and could be edited easily into the brief bursts of the Laugh-In format. When not performing in other routines, they usually donned tuxedos to pretend to class things up.

Since we filled a need for NBC at a bargain price and had free rein in most cases, it didn't take much to convince the network to use young unknowns as the ensemble. These were not monologists or actors but energetic comic artists who could portray multiple characters and score in quick bits.

That's why when Goldie Hawn walked into my office, I was immediately enchanted by her ditsy charm and hired her even though she was a dancer and had never done anything like this. That could never happen today, with focus groups, Q Scores, and whatnot. But the minute I saw her, I knew she was a magical personality and gave her a commitment for all of the shows. We didn't really know what to do with her, so her first assignment was to introduce Rowan. She screwed things up so badly it was perfect for our purposes and we kept her original, confused introduction and repeated it each week. The "dumb blonde's" other giggles and goofs continued on every broadcast, achieved partly by intentionally mishandling her cue cards.

I saw a tape of Lily Tomlin and brought her in for a three-hour meeting during which I guaranteed her multiple characters on all of the shows and she did the voices for Ernestine, the snorting telephone operator; Edith Ann, the knowing 5 1/2-year-old; and my favorite, Lucille the "rubber freak," with an appetite for everything from typewriter erasers to children's galoshes to the crepe-soled shoes of her psychiatrist. After going on the air, we expanded her repertoire with, for example, the "tasteful lady" Mrs. Earbore, a prim society matron. Tomlin, who joined in season three, would come with an idea and we would shoot three or four different segments she had written with her partner, Jane Wagner. In the beginning the characters were intensely improvisational.

When not selling suits at Carroll & Co., an exclusive men's shop in Beverly Hills, Arte Johnson was a character actor who did accents and improvisational songs. For Laugh-In, among other shtick, he exaggerated foreign dialects, like Rabbi Shankar, an Indian guru, and Piotr Rosmenko, an Eastern European. The network couldn't understand them and brought in linguists to try to interpret. Those encounters were hysterical because it always sounded like he was saying something other than what actually came out of his mouth.

Ruth Buzzi sent me a picture of her old maid character, Gladys Ormphby--knotted hairnet, dowdy clothes, wrinkled hose, stooped posture--sitting in a trash barrel as a discarded human being. I fell in love with Buzzi during our first meeting when she sat down at a little electric piano to sing her original operatic duet, "Don't Futz Around." We fought the NBC censor to permit her to perform it (with Johnson)--and won.

Jo Anne Worley was a comedy explosion looking for a place to detonate. She added greatly to the energy and fun through her vocal gymnastics, her outrageous approach to life, love, and the pursuit of the entire Navy, and her hatred of chicken jokes.

Henry Gibson was a cute, adorable sprite who, wearing a suit and carrying an oversized flower, recited short, weird poetry as his big contribution. Dropped into the middle of our madness, this worked perfectly. One poem, called "Elements," went: "I used to like fresh air / when it was there. / And water, I enjoyed it / till we destroyed it. / Each day the land's diminished. / I think I'm finished."

The most unlikely member of the cast was a radio personality and voice actor, Gary Owens, our hand-cupping-his-ear, over-modulated announcer, whose love of puns and weird phrases became a signature of his introductions and transitions. "If your doctor removes your appendix without your consent," he intoned, "you may charge him with sideswiping." Worley and Buzzi bungled a sketch, amusing themselves while at it, so we cut to his explanation, "It's not always easy," and when the pair botched take two and broke up again, he deadpanned, "Much better," before they blew it a bunch more times.

"From beautiful downtown Burbank"--a location of NBC studios and the way Owens, who coined the term, began each broadcast

I met Digby Wolfe, a young British comedian/performer/writer and an outrageous force field of creativity, at a party. He had risen through the entertainment ranks in England and become a major personality in Australia headlining a variety show and radio program. I had the concept for our show but couldn't sell it. He organized and articulated it. And Wolfe came up with the tide Laugh-In, for which he received a royalty every time the words were used.

Wolfe also recruited Johnson and the recurring guest Tiny Tim, the ukulele player/singer. More importantly, Wolfe supplied the political sting and cultural awareness. He brought in writers spanning an enormous breadth of talent and a cross-section of tastes and styles. Some wrote sketches, some wrote jokes, some wrote visuals. One was a professor of political science from Bemidji State University in Minnesota. Two were cartoonists. Paul Keyes, a veteran of the Tonight shows with Jack Paar and Steve Allen and The Dean Martin Show, wrote a lot of the Rowan and Martin segments.

Another appeal of Laugh-In was its unpredictability. At one point we said, "We'll be right back," dipped to black, returned instantly, and declared, "See, we told you we'd be right back." Every television cliche became fodder for us.

In 1968 we did not have the technical facilities that are available today. Our content was lightning fast, from a few seconds to a few minutes apiece, and many times we worked late into the night to get the vast amount of material needed for each show. But there was no time code for synchronization, so the tape had to be physically spiced together. The editing techniques developed by Carolyn Raskin and Art Schneider for Laugh-In are still widely used.

"Easy for you to say"--Rowan to Martin when the latter flubbed a line

Because of my earlier experience in nightclubs and then in television producing The Dinah Shore Chevy Show and The Judy Garland Show as well as other programs, I knew most of the comedians and comedy actors in the funny business and many singers and other celebrities. I convinced them to just "fall by" the studio and read one-liners. They could not believe their guest appearances many times were less than two dozen words, but they loved the freedom in subject matter, style and language. For instance, Peter Lawford said at the cocktail party, "I hear Gov. Reagan is really worried about earthquakes in California. He's afraid Berkeley may shift even further to the left." Sally Field, zinging her Flying Nun fame and the high times, flaunted a go-go outfit, stood next to Gibson's priest at the cocktail party, and spoke into a clutched phone, "Reverend Mother, get over here quickly. There's a bunch of people here and they're all flying."

I remember fondly actors like Edward G. Robinson and Greer Garson appearing as part of the tongue twister spewing "Farkel Family" (say that a few times fast), other show business legends like Orson Welles and Jack Benny playing along, and unusual guest stars such as Truman Capote and the Rev. Billy Graham, who observed, "I know that there are millions of good people watching Laugh-In tonight. And I want to remind all of you that the family that watches Laugh-In together really needs to pray together."

John Wayne became a semi-regular. He even recited a Gibson-like poem, "The Sky": "The sky is blue. / The grass is green. / Get off your butt. / And join the Marines." The flower in hand was red, white and blue. But for one appearance he protested, "No, I'm not going to do that anymore. Last time I was on, they put me in a bunny suit. I'm not going on that show!" So we ran that as his clip.

Perhaps our most famous guest star was Richard Nixon in September 1968. Keyes, a good friend of and joke writer for him, convinced the presidential candidate, who battled an image of being stiff and lacking a sense of humor, to come on and ask, "Sock it to me?" Ensemble member Judy Carne got that line most often, uttering it as a dare and then getting drenched with water or hit with a prop or some such, but we didn't wham Nixon. Because of the equal-time rule, we had to get permission from Congress for an "unusual circumstance" in which a political candidate could make an appearance so long as it was comedic, nonpolitical and less than 30 seconds. Nixon's main opponent, Hubert Humphrey, declined our repeated invitations. Many people credited Laugh-In for having elected Nixon. I, of course, have had to live with those four seconds ever since.

"And that's the truth"--Tomlin's Edith Ann

At one point, Laugh-In earned a 50 share, among the biggest ratings ever in television. One reason was that it offered a feel-good experience that also captured the mood of the times. Laugh-In made people laugh when they needed to while providing an irreverent look at society and culture.

Yet in the beginning some people did not know what to expect or how to take the show. Our third week we were cancelled in Seattle. The network, frightened, wanted to know how I would handle this. I said we were putting a troupe on a plane to do a tribute to Seattle for having the good taste to cancel us. While our crew was on the way to the airport, the Seattle affiliate called to say it was putting the show back on the air.

I don't believe there has ever been a show that had as large a cast of divergent performers and writers who enjoyed the process as much as we did. True, we endured a live-in censor because NBC was not too sure of the meaning behind much of our material. But the network eventually realized that Laugh-In was sexy but not sexist, bawdy but never dirty, and provocative but not ever obscene.

Part of the success of Laugh-In was that it appealed to different age groups. Little children saw the bright colors and the pratfalls and the sight gags. High school students became aware that there was some very provocative material, even though they didn't understand all of it. College students grasped the political significance of what we were saying. And older people looked at Hawn in a bikini and heard her make delightful mistakes and thought, "Isn't this fun?"

Yes, it was fun. It was hard work but one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, and I was glad to have been part of it. As Martin would say, "You bet your sweet bippy."

George Schlatter also created and was the executive producer of the American Comedy Awards and Real People, among other TV shows. He produced the first five Grammy Awards telecasts and series and specials starring the likes of Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Danny Thomas and Victor Borge, and Frank Sinatra, Cher, Doris Day, Shirley MacLaine, Diana Ross and John Denver. Schlatter additionally produced Sammy Davis, Jr.'s 60th Anniversary Celebration, Muhammad Ali's 50th and All-Star 60th Birthday Celebrations, American Film Institute Life Achievement Award Tributes to Dustin Hoffman and Harrison Ford, the 18th annual People's Choice Awards, and the 25th Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon, and directed the 2001 inaugural opening ceremonies of President George W. Bush. A writer on numerous of the above projects, Schlatter has won every major TV award in his categories, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and earned lifetime honors from both the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Museum of Television and Radio. Before forming George Schlatter Productions in 1968, he held multiple positions at MCA Records and was the booking manager at the Sunset Strip nightclub Ciro's.
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Title Annotation:Laugh-In
Author:Schlatter, George
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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