Hollywood Flashback: The Time Nixon Made a Lighthearted Appearance on 'Laugh In'

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Nixon flanked by Dan Rowan (left) and Dick Martin, hosts of 'Laugh-In,' at a rally in Burbank in October 1968.

"It had to be under 10 seconds, nonpolitical, and we had to offer equal time to the other candidates," recalls producer George Schlatter of the Republican nominee’s 1968 appearance on the NBC show: “It took six takes for Nixon to get it right.”

In an era when presidential candidates appear on every television show short of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, it's difficult to imagine it once was considered undignified for White House aspirants to be seen anywhere on TV except the network news. Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the 1950s is the last place Dwight Eisenhower would have been seen. That changed in 1968 with Richard Nixon. The Republican nominee, then 55, had an image problem: He almost universally was perceived as dour. His not-television-friendly appearance in a 1960 presidential debate against John F. Kennedy was seen as contributing to his defeat. Luckily for him, he had a friend at the nation's top-rated network comedy show.

NBC's frenetically paced Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In regularly pulled in a 50 percent share, and head writer Paul Keyes thought it would benefit the show and Nixon if the nominee made a lighthearted appearance. "There were all these laws that made it hard to happen," recalls producer George Schlatter. "It had to be under 10 seconds, nonpolitical, and we had to offer equal time to the other candidates." Plus there was Nixon's awkwardness to contend with. The idea was for him to appear out of the blue in the season opener, reciting the catchphrase "Sock it to me," usually spoken by a giggling Goldie Hawn wearing a flowered bikini. "It took six takes for Nixon to get it right," says Schlatter. "We told him the first one didn't work, and he said 'OK, take two' and held up three fingers."

The appearance made Nixon seem likable and in possession of a sense of humor — no small feat. In the election, Nixon won easily in the Electoral College but barely edged out Democrat Hubert Humphrey in the popular vote. That Schlatter might have helped Nixon win is "something I've had to live with," he says. As for current Republican nominee Donald Trump, who appeared in a much-criticized Tonight Show segment Sept. 15, the Laugh-In producer says, "His getting elected would be good for comedy but bad for the country." 

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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