Under the Radar

How 'Laugh-In' Creator George Schlatter Made America Crack Up at the Height of the Vietnam Era

Laugh-In was a sensation when the show premiered on NBC in 1968 and its success carried over into the 1970s. We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of its premiere and Time-Life has released Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In: The Complete Series, a 38-DVD set that includes all 140 episodes of the original series, a 25th anniversary reunion special and interviews with members of the original cast.

George Schlatter was the creator and driving force behind the show. He produced dozens of TV specials both before and after he made Laugh-In and went on to create Real People, one of the early pioneers in reality television. In his early career, he worked in music as a booking agent, a talent manager at legendary Sunset Strip nightclub and a floor show producer in the early days of Las Vegas. Now 84, he's still full of fire and excited that new generations will have a chance to see the original episodes of Laugh-In in their uncut form.

George talked to us about what it was like to make this show at the height of the Vietnam conflict and how he managed to create one of the few things that most Americans could agree on during that tumultuous time. The men and women who serve are close to his heart and he has a lot to say about how America has treated those who have made the sacrifice to serve.

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 08: Producer George Schlatter (L) and comedian/actress Lily Tomlin speak during the 'The Best of Laugh-In' panel at the PBS portion of the 2011 Winter TCA press tour held at the Langham Hotel on January 8, 2011 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Can you tell us about how you got your start in show business?

At a young age, I worked in the mailroom at MCA and moved up to booking piano players.  From there, I got into nightclubs and then into Las Vegas and eventually into television.  But all of that was fraught with accidents and adventures and so forth.  But all of that came to a head when we finally got them to let us try Laugh-In.  And that was my favorite.

At the time we did this, first of all it was just like now.  There was no feel-good television.  Now there's no feel-good television.  NBC put the show on the air because they didn’t have anything to put on opposite Lucille Ball and Gunsmoke.

They put Laugh-In on the air kind of as just a throwaway.  And they put it on and after about four or five weeks it started to get a rating.  Then they went, wait a minute, what's happening here?  And eventually the show went through the roof.  A big part of the reason it went through the roof is that we did a ton of stuff about the military.

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In this exclusive clip, we look at some of the political humor that made Laugh-In such a hit.

The show had a real 60s look and vibe but you also featured a lot of older entertainers like Jack Benny and John Wayne.

Yeah, that was an adventure. When we asked John Wayne to do the show, he said, “I told you I'm not gonna go on that show.”  We taped him saying that and that’s what we put on the air.

We had Judy Garland and Lena Horn and one of my favorites is Senator Barry Goldwater after he ran for president in 1964.  He said, “America is a great country where any boy can grow up to be president, any boy but me.” But when we put that on the air, people didn’t know for sure who he was.

How old are you?

I was born in 1963, so I was seeing Laugh-In for the first time at like six, seven years old.  I don’t remember anything from 1968.

Sinatra used to say to me, I have ties older than you.

There's a lot of Laugh-In in that box.

America was in a lot of turmoil in the ‘60s and guys who had fought in World War II or Korea were confused by what their kids were up to. It feels like you were building a bridge between the John Wayne/Sinatra world and the kids with long hair.

The Beatles. I wish I could tell you that’s what I did. I was having a good time.  My own attention span is somewhat minimal and I’d been doing this show called The Best on Record, which was an early Grammy Awards.  There weren't any official awards or voting at that point, so we would pretty much give an award to anybody that would show up. All of the awards given out the first five years of The Best on Record had Henry Mancini's name on them because the Academy couldn’t make the statues until they got the money from the show.

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The Chairman is ready to hand out some Grammys in 1964. The Beatles are coming up from behind.

But we went out and did it and did it and did it, and finally NBC wanted  to do it another year.  And I said, “No, I don’t think so because we're not that legitimate an award show yet.” But I agreed to do one more year if they'd let me try one show my way. That show became Laugh-In.  The network looked at it and didn’t know what to say.  They didn’t think it was a television show.  They thought it was too distracting and too fast and too brittle.  But they agreed to let me do it so they put it on the air.

After about five weeks, it started to explode.  Then there was no stopping it because, very shortly, we got up to about a 50 share.  Well, that’s impossible today. I'm arrogant now, but 50 years ago with a 50 share, forget about it.  That’s why we got away with everything.  We didn’t know what we were doing until it was too late to stop it.  What a thrill.

Comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hosted Laugh-In.

Even though the look was very current at the time, it seems like you took some inspiration from old vaudeville shows when you were putting together Laugh-In.

Strangely enough, we were closer to burlesque than to vaudeville.  Vaudeville was the former singers/dancers/jugglers and so forth.  We were a pure comedy show.  We didn’t do any of the straight stuff because that’s not what I wanted to do. I had worked in Vegas booking shows and I wanted to capitalize or use all of those people that I had seen.  They were not sitcom people, they were not singers or dancers, they were like Arte Johnson who was selling suits at Carroll’s. I hired Ruth Buzzi and then it was Dom DeLuise. Goldie Hawn was a dancer.  Louis Nye was doing standup in little saloons.  We put these people who didn’t fit anywhere else on TV and created this wild avalanche of fun.  Thank heavens it worked.

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You talked about Vegas. I’ve heard that you worked at Ciro’s nightclub on the Sunset Strip. Very few of those nightclub acts were  ever filmed, but all the books you read about Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis or Sinatra, there was a certain anarchy that went on in those nightclubs that didn’t translate over to film or TV or the stuff that’s on record.

I knew all of those guys because I worked with them in Vegas, you know?  But it was a different time then. I don’t see that much joy now.  I don’t see people really happy, having a good time, I don’t see feel-good television. At that time, they were having a really good time.  And nobody used the F word.  You couldn’t swear onstage in Vegas, but they were funny without it.

I was really, really lucky to have come up in the 50's and 60's and then be able to bridge that now into the new millennials. I’m still having a good time.  We're gonna do a new Laugh-In.  Now you want to have more fun than that?  Forget about it.

Tiny Tim & Arte Johnson from a episode in Season 5 (1971-1972)

You talk about people not having any fun or any joy these days, but there's a real sense from people that in '67 going into '68 there wasn’t a lot of joy in popular culture in America, either. Laugh-In seems to be so different than the mood of the country.  Do you think it provided an feel-good outlet for people at a time when there wasn’t many other ways to get a laugh?

We were in an unpopular war with an unpopular president.  We had the strife and the problems between the generations.  The gays and the straights, they hated the gay guys.  Mixed marriages, women's rights, abortion, all of that stuff that were fighting in the 60's has cycled.  It's all back again now.  And nuclear energy and war and the military, there was still the feeling about the adventure in Vietnam. Many of us didn’t feel we should have been there, but we were.  The problem was when the troops came home from war, they were not celebrated like the men who came home at the end of World War II or World War I.  They came home and they did not come home to the parades and the festivities. We pointed that out.

Now here today, what are we doing with these people?  They're fighting for their security, they're fighting for their health insurance, they're fighting to get in to see doctors. That’s wrong.  We can't do that.  Hopefully, if we do a new Laugh-In, we will focus a lot on the military. We asked them to do us a favor and, when they do, we forget what they’ve done.

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"Real People" celebrated America's military heroes

When we did Real People, the show became a real favorite of the military because we celebrated the soldiers. We profiled the Navajo Code Talkers. They had never even been recognized because the military thought they might want to use the language again.  We featured the Tuskegee Airmen on Real People.

We got Congressional Medals for the Navajo Code Talkers. We put them on and pointed out the fact that the military had asked them to never tell anybody what they’ve done because the United States might want to use their language again for code.  We did a story about them, then put it on the air and said, “If you feel as we do, that Congress should give these men a medal, then you want to do what we did.  We sent a letter to the White House.” Of course, everybody went crazy because they were flooded with mail and calls.  But we did get them a Congressional Gold Medal.

Both Laugh-In and Real People served their purpose.  They made us feel good about ourselves, they made us proud of what we had done, they made us forget what we haven't done. If we do it again, that’s what we'll do this time. Only I should be better at it by now.

Gary Owens and John Wayne ham it up in beautiful downtown Burbank.

Spring of 1968 feature more bad news than almost any time in American history. The news from Vietnam wasn’t good, LBJ decided not to run for president, Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy are assassinated. And there you are on Monday nights at 8pm. Do you think Laugh-In provided the country with some kind of release valve, a way to laugh in the face of all this stressful news?

That’s right.  And I believe we're right there now.  I believe if we can get our way out of this mess, part of it will be with the contribution of the humorists, who can look at our situation and make us realize and make us understand it, but also make us laugh at it. Without that, you can't do anything.  So I believe we’re going to have another golden age for comedy.  Certainly Donald Trump has given us a lot of room to amuse.

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Going back and watching the episodes of Laugh-In, there's political humor on the show, but it seems much broader and more gentle, like it's designed to engage more people than what political humorists are doing in contemporary times.

I gotta tell you the truth, we really didn’t do the show for the audience.  We did it for ourselves.  We did what we were unhappy with, what we were discontented with. We did that and I don’t think we ever did a survey saying this is what the audience wants or will accept. I don’t believe in surveys.  We did the show, put it on the air, and then defended it.  The audience found it and we found out they were interested in the same things we were.

I think that’s gonna happen again.  Saturday Night Live does stuff with impressionists and impersonators.  Laugh-In didn’t do that.  We created real characters who became part of the culture. I think part of our future lies in the humorists who can look at our situation and have people get their hands down and find humor in it.  There is a lot of humor out there, whether we like it or not.

What worries me a little bit is this: who do our kids look up to? Where are our heroes, where are our role models, where are the people who we can emulate? We've got to find some of those. Right now, young people are getting their news from late-night television.  They're not watching the news, they're not watching CNN or Fox or whatever.  They're watching Bill Maher, they're watching Jimmy Kimmel.  I'm not too sure that’s the healthiest thing in the world, but it's better than not knowing what's going on.

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George explains how to get away with cursing on network television.

At the height of your success, did the censors and executives at NBC try to get you to tone things down?

Every week, every day, every hour.  They could come in and say, “You can't say this.” And by the time they said I can't say it, I had already said it. We captured the imagination of an entire generation, two, three generations.  And we would go on the air and we were still fighting with the censors when the show went on the air because they didn’t really understand it.  And it was just too fast and it was too much and it was talking about things they had never talked about before.

Judy Carne, Goldie Hawn and Chelsea Brown attracted many viewers to Laugh-In.

But that’s what America wanted to hear, same as now, right?  Right now the same problems existed, existed then. When we release the collection of Laugh-In you're gonna go, “Whoa, what is that?” because it's a feel good thing.

We need that right now, we need that pressure valve, we need the sense of fun and the joy.  There's no joy.  What do you feel joy about?  I don’t know how old you are, but do you feel joyous about watching American Idol?  Yeah?  Okay.  The Voice?  Yes, feel good.  But I don’t know whether or not you feel good about watching the rest of the car crashes and the explosions and the guns and all of that.  Hopefully if the original, and if we do a new one, we'll bring back a sense of joy and hope.

The first thing we have to do is to legitimately focus more attention on the military because we're screwing them over pretty good.  But that’s one of the answers.  So let's focus more on the military, but focus on our heroes, let's focus on our role models, and let the comedians come out and help us laugh.

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