If you are of a certain age, or any age actually, the show that changed the course of variety television, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, should come to mind. Created by George Schlatter, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In featured a fast moving barrage of jokes, one-liners, running skits and musical numbers that poked fun of the social and political issues at the time.
In a typical episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In there were dance party segments, quick bits (“Sock It To Me Time”, “It’s a Mod, Mod World” and “The Quickies,” among others), and a potpourri of classic sayings (such as “Look it up in your Funk & Wagnall’s,” “You bet your sweet bippy,” “Very interesting” and “Here come da judge”). Celebrity guests would come and go. And the cast of regulars included Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Ruth Buzzi, Arte Johnson, Alan Sues, Chelsea Brown, Henry Gibson. Teresa Graves, Jo Anne Worley and Gary Owens as the announcer,
Replacing spy drama The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and competing with the then blockbuster combination of western Gunsmoke and everyone’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball, in The Lucy Show, the expectations were low. Yet, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In rose to the top-rated series in all of primetime by season two.
“No one knew what Laugh-In was when we started,” remembered George Schlatter, who writes about his almost 70 years in show business in his memoir Still Laughing: A Life in Comedy. “We had no money; it was bought because NBC did not have anything else to put on at 8 p.m. on Monday. Nobody wanted to do the show, so we would stand out in the hall when people came out of Johnny Carson and we would ask them to appear on Laugh-In and would then tape their responses. My favorite reaction was from John Wayne who said in his famous show drawl, ‘I’m not gonna do that show, those crazy people.’”
“Laugh-in was really nothing more than an accident. If we can look at accidents not as a problem but as an answer, my career was largely based on a lot of accidents, he said.”
Still Laughing features never-before-told backstories from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and it recounts the career of George Schlatter, from his early nightclub days in Las Vegas, conversing with iconic mob figures like Mickey Cohen and John Stompanato, to his relationships with celebrities like Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, Lucille Ball, Cher, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra.
Some memories from George Schlatter:
“Judy Garland was like life on a ledge; you never knew if she would show up,” noted Schlatter.” I adored that woman. And the secret to Judy was to make her laugh. Everyone treated her with such awe, and I treated her with humor.”
“I was hired to do The Judy Garland Show because I did The Dinah Shore Show. CBS wanted me to do with Judy what I had done with Dinah, but Judy was a whole different person. We did the first five shows in six weeks, but it wasn’t what CBS wanted. They fired me and I went on to do The Steve Lawrence Show.”
“Dinah Shore was a delight. She was not as simple as her reputation. Underneath that charming warm Southern exterior of the ‘girl next door’ was a bawdy lady lurking to get out,” remembered Schlatter.
“Lucille Ball was an adventure. Lucy was fun, she was playful, she was naughty, and she was outrageous; simply one of a kind. And that very nature morphed into Goldie (Hawn) and Lily (Tomlin) and some other people when we did Laugh-In.”
“My relationship with Frank Sinatra was confrontational. It was dangerous. It was fun. It was exciting. And I will always cherish the time we spent together. Throughout my career, Sinatra always managed to pop up. He was intense and a force to reckon with. He was more than a singer, a writer, an actor or a politician. He was all of this wrapped around into one big ball of excitement.”
Sammy Davis Jr.
“Sammy Davis Jr. was like life in an avalanche. He could do anything; sing, dance, play instruments. He was not educated, but he wanted to learn. Sammy started saying ‘Here comes da judge’ wearing a black robe and a white wig and it swept the country. He was a wonderful, warm, funny, and troubled man.”
“Cher is an event person and absolutely larger than life. Not always easy; she had been bossed around by Sonny (Bono) for so long and was not going to let another man tell her what to do. We did some great shows and she always rose to the occasion no matter who it was with; Ray Charles, Kate Smith, Lena Horne. And she is still full of surprises and a large part of the memorable moments in my career that I cherish.”
Turning 94 on December 31, George Schlatter began producing variety series and specials for television in the early 1960s including The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Judy Garland Show, The Steve Lawrence Show and The Grammy Awards (from 1964 to 1970). Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In began its six season run on January 22, 1968. Then, in 1979, Schlatter created NBC’s Real People, which ran for five seasons and invented a new format of the non-scripted genre in primetime. In 1987, he started The American Comedy Awards, which was an annual event through 2001. He also produced a few feature films. And, of course, there was Schlatter’s infamous sketch-comedy Turn-On, which was turned off by ABC midway through the first episode on February 5, 1969.
Schlatter has received numerous honors and awards including three Emmys. And he is a founding Advisory Board member of the National Comedy Center located in Lucille Ball’s hometown of Jamestown, New York where a theater was named after George and his wife of 67 years, Jolene Brand.
Reflecting on his career, Still Laughing, which comes out in audio on Tuesday, November 28, is an absolute must for pop culture enthusiasts written by one of the true heroes of the comedy genre.
“When I started to write this book I started dictating every funny thing I could remember and Still Laughing is all those memories,” he said. “The book is a collection of funny experiences, which I have had more of the normal amount of. People need a laugh, which is the cornerstone of my career…and this book.”