Sock It To ME?
Laugh-In Celebrates 50 Years of Hilarious Social Commentary

By Lee Valentine Smith

Richard Nixon's appearance on an episode of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" is cited by many as the most crucial five seconds of the 1968 Presidential Campaign. Veteran television producer George Schlatter still jokingly "blames" himself for those pivotal, briefly humanizing moments when the controversial Republican contender looked directly into the camera to deadpan a questioning version the show's familiar catch-phrase: "Sock it to me?"

It's just one of many highlights of the program that debuted as a one-off variety special on NBC in September of 1967. Five decades later, the good folks at Time-Life are issuing the definitive box set of all six seasons of the trendsetting program, painstakingly presented in a massive 38-disc set. Spanning the momentous Vietnam-era years of '67 through the spring of '73, the psychedelic, pun-packed, innuendo-laden series is binge-worthy and gif-ready for a new generation.

INsite chatted with Schlatter, Laugh-In's quick-witted, multiple-Emmy-winning creator by phone from his office in Los Angeles.

September marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode of the show.


It's just amazing to think how long it's been. I've been going through all of it for this collection, 144 episodes! It's funny how much of it I remember from having been there - working with the censors, the sponsors and the incredible cast.

The references to world events and global politics really mark it as a time capsule of the era.

The interesting thing is we're politically right where we were when we came on the air. We have not solved one problem since then.

At this point will it ever be resolved?

Then as now, I still believe it's the comedians who are the only ones who can get us out of this mess. They're the only ones who can tell the emperor that not only does he not have any clothes, he's not very well-endowed! Back then, comedy activated the audience and it led them to get involved. You can't wait for the politicians to do it, you have to use the Internet and social media and all that stuff. I think that may be our only solution now.

Like ye olde court jester.

Exactly! He was the only one who could stand up and say anything - and get away with it. We just did a clip montage of the political humor for the infomercial for the DVD set. Everything in it could be run today because it's so still topical. And it would probably get us into some of the same trouble as it did back then.

When you go back through the archives to pull clips, it must instantly bring back those crazy times.

Yes, and the people. When you go back, you realize there was Goldie [Hawn], there was Ruth [Buzzi], Lily [Tomlin], Judy [Carne], Jo Anne [Worley] and Arte [Johnson]. It's so gratifying to me, all the wonderful people I had the chance to worth with.

And of course Dan Rowan and Dick Martin as the suave but subtly subversive hosts. When did you meet them?

I was booking the Frontier Hotel in Vegas. I was all over the place back then. After Ernie Kovacs died, I was helping [Kovacs' wife, actress] Edie Adams put together a nightclub act. That's when I met Rowan and Martin; they were her opening act. They weren't TV stars yet, but they had a helluva nightclub act.

Did you build Laugh-In around them?

No, the show was built without any hosts. [Original sponsor] Timex wanted to buy the show, but they wanted to have a host. Rowan and Martin were a little older than the rest of the cast, wore tuxedos and didn't interfere with the format so we put them in as the hosts. Their routines were long and kind of rambling so we'd have them do one of their things and just talk.

The rest of cast were equally inspired choices.

Into everyone's life a Goldie Hawn should fall! We had a group of such funny young character people who weren't comedians or from sitcoms but were just funny people. They didn't fit into any category but they fit beautifully into Laugh-In. We put a group of performers who didn't have a home and a group of writers who didn't have a home into brief little character bursts. Then we added some social commentary. When you needed that much material for an hour show, you touched on a lot of subjects.

Connected with innovative quick-cut edits.

Yeah, but that was just my own minimal attention span coming into play. See, NBC didn't have anything to put on opposite Lucille Ball and Gunsmoke, which were the number one and two shows at the time. And they owed me a favor. I said I wanted to do the show my way with no interference. They said sure - but I don't think they really meant it.

Then you became the number one show on TV by the next year.

But the most gratifying thing is I really think we helped end the war. I think we probably made the public much more aware of world situations - through comedy. We were bawdy, irreverent and impudent and because of that I think we really made a difference.

"Rowan and Martin's Laugh In: The Complete Series" begins shipping on June 12 and is available via: timelife.com/products/laughin

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