Laugh-In: An Interview with George Schlatter
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was a phenomenon of its time and one that’s not likely to be repeated.
In television primetime comedy you have benchmarks that include shows like The Ernie Kovacs Show in the 1950s (which at one time or another was on four different television networks), That Was the Week That Was (1964-1965, itself a remake of an English series), Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969 – 1974) and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1967 – 1973).
The current go-to irreverent comedy skit show Saturday Night Live, which in many ways amalgamates elements from all the previous shows mentioned, while not actually in prime time, uses subliminal social and overt political humor to achieve its laughs.
One thing is certain — all of these shows were cut from a unique bolt of cloth that eludes the majority of television shows comedy or otherwise.
George Schlatter was the executive producer and producer (and wrote the pilot) on over 140 episodes of Laugh-In. Schlatter’s previous producer credits included variety shows like The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1960-1962) and The Judy Garland Show (1963).
“It was a different time; one year there were seventeen variety shows,” says Schlatter during a phone interview with Free Press Houston.
Laugh-In launched on January 22, 1968 on the Peacock Channel. The comedy revue was a Monday night replacement for NBC’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and was up against CBS war-horses Gunsmoke and The Lucy Show.
“NBC put Laugh-In against them because it was cheap and they didn’t have anything else. It took them fourteen weeks to develop a replacement. We were cannon fodder against Lucy and Gunsmoke,” says Schlatter.
Somehow Laugh-In caught the zeitgeist of that tumultuous era. Think about all the events that formed 1968, whether it was the Vietnam War, Chicago election riots or the assassinations of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy. Almost immediately Laugh-In was catapulted to the number one show of that year.
“We appealed to little kids with the colors and the old guys with the content, but in the middle was your group who knew we were saying something,” Schlatter says when I tell him Laugh-In was a staple of my then 12-year old existence.
Laugh-In coined what became catch phrases like “Sock it to me” and “Here comes the judge.”
“We had Sammy Davis, Jr. and when he came up with ‘Here Comes the Judge’ we immediately put it in the next show. The following day, when the Supreme Court justices walked in, someone in the back yelled out ‘Here Comes the Judge,’ and the whole room cracked up. It was the first laugh the Supreme Court ever got,” says Schlatter.
The show mainly used one-liners at His Girl Friday-speed and as such the editing was equally rapid fire, another first for television at the time. Laugh-In would be perfect for a re-launch in the current era of one sentence social media interaction.
“There was a woman named Carolyn Raskin who developed many of the editing techniques we had. We didn’t even have time code then, we had to physically splice everything,” says Schlatter about some of the transitions that had multiple images per second. “It was an adventure technically as well as creatively.”
Guest stars like John Wayne, Cher, Carol Channing or Johnny Carson would appear in the studio for one episode but could be edited into numerous episodes. “Some of them we grabbed off the hallway,” says Schlatter referring to another Laugh-In catch phrase: “From NBC Studios in beautiful downtown Burbank.”
Here’s another typical joke that was delivered by Cher: “I’ve heard of all the great Hollywood marriages. Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens.”
You like that? Here’s another Cher zinger: “Sonny and I are totally compatible. Anytime there’s a problem his psychiatrist contacts my psychiatrist and they work it out.”
While the heart of the show was slipping in sly drug references and double entendre, the show became such a hit that it attracted conservative faces like Dr. Billy Graham. Graham can be seen mugging for the camera saying, “The family that watches Laugh-In together really needs to pray together.”
“We had Barry Goldwater, we had Bill Buckley. Buckley, you know, was a conservative reporter. We wrote to him and he replied, ‘Not only do I refuse to appear, I resent having been asked,’” says Schlatter. “I responded that I would fly him to California in an airplane with two right wings, and he agreed to appear.”
Laugh-In also debuted talent like Goldie Hawn, Flip Wilson, Tiny Tim and Lily Tomlin, who herself didn’t appear until the third season. On Tomlin, Schlatter recalled: “The night after she did Ernestine, everyone was walking down the hall saying ‘One-ringee-dingee.’ In one show Lily would do seven characters, and nobody had seen anything like that before.”
Other performers who came and went over Laugh-In’s six seasons include Judy Carne, Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley, Henry Gibson, Arte Johnson, Alan Sues, Eileen Brennan, Chelsea Brown, Gary Owens, Teresa Graves, Pamela Graves, Larry Hovis and the list goes on and on.
Hawn won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1970 for Cactus Flower and left the show, but when she made a post-Oscar cameo the cast played it to the hilt like she was a princess and they were all trying to kiss her ass.
Every episode introduces serious performers goofing it up. Jack Lemmon’s son told him he couldn’t possibly be a movie star because he hadn’t been on Laugh-In. In its first year Laugh-In got a cameo from then Presidential candidate Richard Nixon.
“It might have been the reason he was elected,” says Schlatter. “I apologize for that.”
In one early episode Nixon says “Sock it to me,” phrased like a question. In fact it’s the same iteration that Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) uses in the debut episode. Carroll was the head of the show bearing the U.N.C.L.E. logo that Laugh-In replaced.
Tiny Tim was a longhaired fop that played songs from the 1920s on a ukulele and had never been on television prior to Laugh-In. “We brought him in what we called the new talent department. He sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” Schlatter recalled. “The network said ‘You can’t put him on, he’s a freak.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘He’s a big star.’ And they were like, ‘Okay.’” Perhaps not oddly, once Tiny Tim appeared on Laugh-In, he became a star.
As big of a success as Laugh-In was, Schlatter also produced a show on ABC the following year called Turn-On. It took the Laugh-In ethos yet made the tune-in-turn-on message more obvious. It was no problem for Schlatter to be running shows on two networks, in a time when there were three broadcast networks and PBS. Laugh-In gave him carte blanche.
“Well, I’m arrogant now, but with a fifty-share back then, c’mon,” says Schlatter. “The network was selling time for so much per commercial they pretty much looked the other way.”
The writer’s room, while atypical of the time, mirrors modern day writing groups. “There were maybe fifteen writers. But they were not the normal sitcom writers or the variety show writers,” says Schlatter. “These were rebels. One had been a professor of political science, and many of the others did not fit any categories.”
Schlatter realized early on that the way to get lines past the censors was the blindside them. “Every week they would send the script back full of paper clips. Sometimes we put things in we knew would purposely upset them so we could slip by other stuff. They didn’t have a way of handling us because there had never been anything like that on the air.”
Turn-On was greeted with a different response.
“It didn’t even last one episode; it lasted twenty minutes of the first episode,” recalls Schlatter. “Some stations literally pulled the show during the middle of the opening show.”
Another show Schlatter produced, Real People (1979), predated reality television by decades.
“That was another adventure,” says Schlatter. “An attempt to look at ordinary guys, the unsung hero, eccentrics. It was the first television show that saluted the little guy but without any guest stars.”
Just months after, another network had a copycat series called That’s Incredible.
Schlatter made a foray into feature film making with Norman … Is That You? in 1976, which revolved around Redd Foxx discovering his son is gay.
“At that time I could do anything I wanted to do on television, but to go on a movie lot and spend the time it takes to make a film took a year. Television was immediate. We’d write it down and it could be on the air the next day.
“We were freefall television. We touched on all sorts of issues but we never dwelt on them long. We were always off on something else but by the time you got the previous joke you would’ve realized we just said something revolutionary.
“Dan [Rowan] and Dick [Martin] did a sensational nightclub act. They were not friendly. When they left the stage they didn’t talk to each other until the next time they came back onstage. But it was one of the funniest nightclub acts ever.
“Timex said they wanted us to have hosts so we got Dan and Dick for our pilot. They wore tuxedos and craziness happened around them. It worked.”
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In – The Complete Series is available exclusively through TimeLife. The box set includes thirty-eight discs and will likely take you months to conquer.