'Laugh-In' at 50: How the Comedy Helped Elect Nixon and Set the Stage for 'SNL'

On the 50th anniversary of its premiere, creator George Schlatter reflects on the revolutionary comedy hour that launched the careers of Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, gave birth to late-night television and that time he told Rupert Murdoch "no" to a reboot.
Lily Tomlin as Ernestine on 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In'

Saturday Night Live may have debuted on NBC in October 1975, but much of its roots originated from the network's Laugh-In, which premiered Jan. 22, 1968 — 50 years ago today. The groundbreaking comedy variety hour provided funny 30-second sketches for ADD audiences. Surrounded by a set decorated with go-go dancers, cocktail parties and joke walls, a young, cute, happy and fun cast delivered a new blueprint for generating laughter.

Laugh-In creator George Schlatter took the era's love-ins and swapped the affection for humor to reflect a feeling, a sign of the times. From brilliant improv to the psychedelia, rim-shot one-liners and body painting, the show reached across generations. Daring yet familiar, Laugh-In offered a freeform, free-for-all happening catered to quick flashes and fast cuts. Whether or not you got a punchline didn't matter. Jokes flew by like race cars on a speedway. You might not get them all, but you got enough of them, be they satirical attacks on the establishment or just the inane, to keep watching every Monday.

Having worked his way up to a successful booker for comedy acts and TV producer for programs like The Judy Garland Show, Schlatter developed a strong comedic sense and the ability to find humor anywhere. "Judy loved to laugh," Schlatter tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Her favorite thing in the world was fart jokes. One time she got mad at me onstage so I put fart sounds into an organ so that every note was a different fart. We played 'Over the Rainbow' in fart sounds. She just sat down on the stage and laughed."

Schlatter could feel the pulse of the nation beating for new voices that could capture the insanity of the times. He had no idea what that voice would sound like, but just knew that it needed to be heard. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the raconteur to look back at the show's history and lasting impact as Laugh-In celebrates 50 years.

How did Laugh-In get its start?

Laugh-In was an accident that grew and lived on accidents. I'd been doing a NBC show called The Best on Record, an early version of the Grammy's before there was money to pay for the award. The network wanted me to do another year. I said I would if they'd let me do a new show, my way, no rules. At the time, nobody was doing pure comedy. All variety shows were the same. I wanted something that reflected my own minimal attention span and love of comedy.

You pitched something entirely new. What kind of response did you get? 

We had problems attracting sponsors. Timex finally signed on, but only after we agreed to have a host, to make the establishment more comfortable.

How did you decide on Dan Rowan and Dick Martin?

I'd worked with them in Vegas. They were one of the funniest nightclub acts I ever saw, but definitely not Laugh-In. They wore tuxedos and were older than the rest of the cast. Dan played super straight and Dick a womanizing, looney-tunes rascal. When they finished their act, they said "goodnight" and didn't talk again until the next show. That's one of the reasons they worked. They didn't rehearse. They'd go out on stage and talk and talk until [announcer] Gary Owens would come out and say, "Later that same evening," so we could cut to a cocktail party.

What did NBC think of the show?

They thought it was a disaster."This isn't a television show. Nothing makes sense." I said, "No, you don't understand. It's the newest thing on the continent. They call it comedy verite." They said, "We never heard of it." I said, "See how new it is?" I made it up and they promoted it that way.

Why didn't they just pull you off the network?

Because we caused a lot of comment. Since they didn't have anything to put on opposite CBS' The Lucy Show and Gunsmoke, two of the top shows on TV, they turned to us as a stop-gap solution.

In casting the show, Schlatter bypassed auditions. He looked for funny and magic people. These weren't singers or dancers, but rather a collection of youthful characters he found everywhere and anywhere. Arte Johnson was selling suits at Carroll's. Ruth Buzzi worked with Dom DeLuise in a purposefully bad magic comedy act called "She Gondola." Jo Anne Worley and Gary Owens only had to open their mouths and talk. Judy Carne, Henry Gibson, Alan Sues, Chelsea Brown, Teresa Graves and more came from all walks of life, as did two relatively unknowns, Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin.

How did you find Goldie Hawn?

Goldie was a school-trained dancer, working on a CBS Andy Griffith special. Carolyn Raskin, one of our producers, said I had to see her. I said, "What am I going to do with a dancer? I'm doing a comedy show." She told me when Goldie was on stage, nobody can look anywhere else. She was right. That adorable, warm, loving person just popped out of the camera at you. Her first appearance was an introduction of Rowan. She screwed it up so bad. They told her to do it again. I said, "Never, ever stop this woman. Never say cut to this woman." A Goldie mistake was better than anyone could write. We never let her rehearse or gave her a script. Sometimes we'd invert the words so we'd know she'd screw it up. You never knew what was going to come out of her mouth, but you knew it wasn't what you expected it to be. She'd do news items for "News of the Past, Present and Future," which became part of SNL. She'd make her story sound like the most important thing in the world but it didn't make any sense.

What about Lily Tomlin?

I was working in New York and we were auditioning people for The Gary Moore Show. I looked up on stage and there was this adorable girl with taps taped on her bare feet. She did this tap dance which I just loved. I always remembered her. A few years later she was on a show called Music Scene on ABC. She played a woman who ate rubber, a rubber freak. I said I had to meet her. So, she came out and spent an hour with me going through her whole collection of characters. That was it.

Where did Ernestine come from?

Lily wanted to do this telephone operator, Ernestine, but she'd always done it as a monologue. We put her in front of a switchboard and right before she went on to tape, I said, "When you dial the phone, use your middle finger," and she did. Nobody ever realized that she was giving the finger to the audience. It was classic.

What about Edith Ann?

Lily says she wants to do a child and needs a chair. I tell her I'll get her a chair. She says she wants a big chair. We stopped everything and built her that chair. She came in as a little girl, sat on that chair, and talked about how babies happen. Watching that, you knew something wonderful had happened. If you give people enough room and stimulation, they come in with brilliant things.

Delivering the number of weekly jokes the show did required a group of writers who could create on a moment's notice. Schlatter, in looking for something for everyone, brought in an incredibly diverse crew in age and political bent, including the creator of SNL. How did you discover new talent?

All you have to do is open your mind, a window or a door and you'll find people out there. Digby Wolff, the backbone of our writing staff, was a star in England. He'd opened for the Beatles and had a lot of British sensitivity. Alan Manning was to the left of Digby. We had a writer who was a professor of political science at a college in Bemidji, Wisconsin. Paul Keyes was Richard Nixon's best friend and to the right of right. One of the people we found was writing jokes on cards and mailing them to me. We found out he was a 16-year-old working in a divorce court downtown who had to wait until he got off work so his mom could bring him to our office.

You also gave a new writer from Canada his first break. How did you discover Lorne Michaels?

Rowan and Martin had heard about a comedy team, Pomerantz and Michaels, in Canada. So we brought them down. They went right from the airport to Dan and Dick's dressing room. Lorne learned a lot from Digby, who ran the writers' room. He became the greatest politician in show business. He can really schmooze. Let's face it, he's been on the air for 43 years. He's put a lot of writers in the guild and talent on the screen. By anyone's judgment that's a record.

So many iconic pop culture moments came from your show. Where did "sock it to me" come from?

Aretha Franklin had a record at the time, "Respect," with the lyric, "Sock it to me." I'm in the car with my wife, Jolene, and she says we ought to do a "sock it to me" piece on the show and I say you can't because it had sexual connotations. Simultaneously, my five-year-old daughter in the back seat starts going, "sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me." I went, "Uh-oh." My wife had the idea to tie the phrase to visuals like when we would drop Judy Carne through the trap door. The network was taken aback by us constantly using the phrase. But it took off.

What about "Here comes the judge?"

Pigmeat Markham was a comedian and singer who had this phrase, "Here comes the judge." One night, at two in the morning, we had Sammy Davis Jr. in a white wig walking down a hall saying, "Here comes the Judge." It didn't make sense, but we put it into the next show. Two days later, in the Supreme Court, as the justices come in, somebody in the back shouts, "Here comes the judge," and the whole place cracks up. The show exploded after that. That phrase became part of our speech.

Arte Johnson's German soldier and his "very interesting?"

Arte came over to my house one Easter dressed up as the Easter Nazi laying eggs all over the front yard. The first time he did the German on TV was with Bob Hope. Bob was trying to do a monologue and Arte came out and said, "Every Christmas we waited for you." Hope didn't know what to think of him.

One of the most famous moments in the show's history came when Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon made a six-second appearance to kick off the second season. At the time, he found himself neck-in-neck in a race to become executive in chief with the then vice president and Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. Schlatter knew he couldn't pass up the opportunity to do something historic.

How did Nixon come together?

After the first season, we were doing well, but we weren't as big as we would become. I said we needed something to open next year. I asked Paul if he could get his buddy Nixon to appear. So, Paul, Digby and me went over to CBS where Nixon was doing a press conference. Afterward, Paul asks Nixon to say a line. Nixon says, "You want me to say, "Sock it to me?" Nixon defined square. He was the original cube, but he'd do anything Paul said because he adored him. So, he says, "Sock it to me?" I say, "If you could just kind of smile and say it." He says, "OK, comedy is new to me." Six takes later, I took that tape underneath my arm, ran back to NBC like a bullet, and put it in the next show.

After the episode, I thought, what did I do? I made him into a nice guy. We decided to ask Humphrey to say, "Yes, please do sock it to me," but he wouldn't do it. We followed him all over trying to get him. He often said afterward that he thinks not doing it may have cost him the election. Sometimes people say I helped get Nixon elected. I've had to live with that.

Many celebrities and politicians appeared on Laugh-In knowing nothing about the show other than its big ratings, proving that you don't always have to get the joke to be in on it. This gave the show's writers leeway to try new ideas with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

What are some of your fond memories of folks who didn't get the conceit of the show?

Cher comes in with Sonny, reads the script, and says she loves it. But Sonny looks confused. He asks me, "Where's Cher's song?" I thought, "Holy shit, he doesn't understand there are no songs on the show." I turn to Billy Barnes, who wrote all the special music material for our shows, and say, "Billy, where is Cher's song?" He looks at me like I'm from Mars. I say, "You know, the Mounty number." We then go into my office where I tell him to write me a Mounty number for Cher and Tim Conway. Billy could take any subject and turn it into a song. Fifteen minutes later we had one.

You got John Wayne to appear. He didn't normally do variety shows.

Keyes talked him into wearing a bunny suit. I wouldn't have had the guts to do that. We always had people popping up that you didn't expect to see. Edward G. Robinson walked through the studio once and did a great impression of Edward G. Robinson.

You also got Johnny Carson several times.

Johnny taped across the hall. One week Dick Martin got upset about Goldie getting so much attention. So, he refused to come in. I went and asked Johnny if he'd do me a favor. He comes over and pretends to be Dick Martin. We taped the whole thing as if it was Rowan and Martin. Two weeks later, Dan got upset about something and neither one of them came in. So, we got Goldie and Theresa to be Rowan and Martin and people loved it. You have to cherish the accidents because that's what makes comedy.

What about Orson Welles?

We did a vampire sketch with Orson where he's doing this dramatic Halloween reading about a haunted house. While he's doing his monologue, everything goes wrong behind him. Alan Sues comes out early as a monster. Dennis Allen starts picking him up and throwing him around the room. Alan keeps interrupting Orson. Then the set falls down. Orson continues as if nothing's happening. He doesn't know what's going on. He was a consummate professional. Any other show would have done another take. Afterward, Orson said, "I think I could do it better." I said, "I don't think so." The mistake was one of the funniest things we ever aired.  

Hugh Hefner?

Hefner did our cocktail party, which is where he met Barbi Benton, this adorable little starlet. She was seeing Dick Martin until she met Hefner. They left together and I never saw either one again.

Cocktail parties and joke walls seized on the pop culture of the moment and gave the cast and guest stars a playground for rapid-fire banter.

Where did the joke wall come from?

The set designer put these little squares of fabric on a script book for me to choose from. Script books were typically just black. I looked at it and asked if we could build something like that with windows that open. It became part of our set. The difficult part was deciding who went in which window. Alan was doing the joke wall once when he told me Judy's not wearing any pants. I said, "Judy are you wearing pants?" She says, "Hello love. Wait a minute I'll look." I told her everyone's already looking so then we developed the joke floor. If someone was out of line or being difficult we'd put them in the floor. We always did the joke wall last because by then some of the people had indulged in artificial stimulants so it was out of control, but part of what made is so fun was that it was deliberately out of control.

What about the cocktail party?

The party was reminiscent of parties that were going on at the time. Rather than having a straight musical number, we'd play music, stop, do a joke, and cue music again. It was shocking at the time because people weren't used to that kind of brevity so it took a little getting used to. Because we used so many jokes, Digby made all our 15 writers come in with two cocktail party jokes every Monday.

Some of the editing techniques and camera shots had never been done before. How did you come up with such groundbreaking ideas?

Raskin had the editor use fast cuts and jump cuts to fit pieces together. It was loose and dangerous. One time we were still editing on the other end of the hall when the show went on the air. In a normal variety form, you couldn't play characters back to back. The way we were taping, Arte and Lily could do six to eight different characters in one show. We also used close-ups so you got to know people. When you saw Goldie in a close-up you fell in love with her. When you saw Lily close-up as Ernestine it was funnier and you got to know her.

What do people not know about your show?  

Laugh-In was a heavily female-driven show. Raskin was a producer and the creative force behind our editing. Her assistant was Camilla Dunn. Susan Silver did the casting. The head of the business affairs office at William Morris was Ruth Engelhard. Women had a voice. We often gave the punchline to female castmembers. It wasn't a nod to the women's movement, but more because it just wasn't being done. That's how we got Judy Carne and Theresa Graves. They were powerful women. We put a lot of funny women into the guild and on the show. I was proud of the fact we were way out in front there.

What kind of censorship did you encounter?

The most sought-after job at NBC was painting words on Goldie. The network was very nervous about what we were going to put on her, so we were under constant surveillance. When she went on stage no one knew where those words were going to appear.

Dan had this character, General Bull Right, a hard right-wing general in the army who thought this country needed a 52-week war for the economy. It was my favorite character of his. It came from Digby. To us it was funny. With Nixon though, we had difficulty getting things cleared about the Pentagon and the war.

Did you have issues with language, too?

The censors would come in with all these paper clips in the script and say cut this and that. Arte would do double talk, like a folk song in Italian. The network would bring in linguists to try to find out if he was saying things in a foreign language. We never used the f-word, but we'd say things like "farkles" or "look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls" in which you linger on the "f" a little bit, which made the network very nervous.

Schlatter loves today's late-night comedians because they poke, prod and punch holes into the bag of pomposity littering our politics and a certain network with a name that rhymes with "lox." Humorists strike back at the voices pushing propaganda instead of presenting news or a real point of view. In that sense, he feels they do what Laugh-In did, only his show did it in a more subversive manner.

What do you think of late-night today?

I think Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert are funny. They go out and say things that get your attention. If we're going to survive the quagmire we find ourselves mired in now, I believe comics may be what leads us out. You can't separate comedy and politics now. Politics today is comedy tomorrow morning. Look at Trump. He makes things so easy. You don't even have to write. You just quote him.

Have we reached a point in time for a new Laugh-In?

Rupert Murdoch called me in for a meeting once in which he told me he'd like to do a new version of Laugh-In but that we'd have to adjust the political philosophy a bit. I said, "Mr. Murdoch look at your watch." He asked, "Why?" I said, "Because you just had the shortest meeting of your life."

I'm longing to do some satirical stuff. Laugh-In was a perfect show for its time. Fifty years later, we haven't fixed a thing. We still have an unpopular president, sexism, pollution. The time's right now. Maybe it'll help people remember what was and what can be. I've made offers to Trump and Tom Brokaw, who used to come up all the time to watch us tape, to appear on a show. I'd love to get Obama and Gloria Allred, people who aren't known as variety show performers. They're the best.

Laugh-In ran for 140 episodes, leaving the airwaves in 1973. In looking back at the show and the mark it left on the country culturally, politically and comedically, Schlatter feels he understands the show's legacy.

What's the show's legacy?

Break the rules. Once something becomes a rule, it's made to be broken. It's an absolute necessity. Most important, cherish accidents and enjoy failures because out of them come miracles.