Tavis: George Schlatter is an award-winning television producer who created one of TV’s most iconic and influential comedy programs of all time, “Laugh-In.” The weekly sketch show ran from 1968 to 1973 and helped to foster the careers of some great actors like Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn. Starting next month right here on PBS, you can catch highlights from the groundbreaking series on “The Best of Laugh-In.” Here now a scene from “The Best of Laugh-In.”
Tavis: For a generation that did not see “Laugh-In” but has seen, as we’ll talk about in a moment, all the things that “Laugh-In” spun off that we do, in fact, watch today, “Laugh-In” was all about what?
George Schlatter: It was all about having a good time, and having a good time and getting something said. So if you could combine that while we were saying something important, then next to that we’d do something silly and you weren’t aware that we were socking it to you.
Tavis: How do you combine – my word here, not yours, but since you’re saying getting something said – how do you combine commentary and comedy and make it work?
Schlatter: I think we must. I think you get your hands down. Nobody ever gets hit laughing. So if you can make it funny and then make it serious, you were never aware of what we were telling you, because we got by with a lot of stuff.
Tavis: Yeah, you gave the censors a bunch of heart attacks, though.
Schlatter: Yes, we put six of them in the home. (Laughter)
Tavis: Is that a badge of honor?
Schlatter: Our censors usually wound up in Silly City wearing a canvas coat in a rubber room. We didn’t say anything bad, it’s just we said a lot of things so fast, and we were talking about subjects that weren’t being discussed then. The networks were very nervous about the subjection of abortion. You couldn’t mention abortion.
So we had the line where we said, “If a man could have an abortion, abortions would be a sacrament.” Well, then they got crazy, right? So then we said, “Well, everybody who is for abortion has already been born.” And they said, “Well, wait a minute, what is that?” (Laughter) Then we came out, we said, “They should have one more vote on abortion, but only women should be allowed to vote.” “What did they mean by that?”
So we would take a sensitive subject like that and then have Jo Anne Worley, pregnant, singing “The Things We Did Last Summer.” (Laughter) They came out of the walls, man. “Come on, you can’t say that.”
Tavis: I assume there was a team of folk working on this, but where did these ideas come from, to try a format, to roll out certain formats that we now know as commonplace in TV today? For example, for those of us who have gotten a kick for all these years out of the “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update,” you guys are the precursors – you’re the precursor to that, you’re the precursor to some “In Living Color” stuff, a lot of what Jon Stewart does and Stephen Colbert does.
A lot of these formats and styles and ways of doing things, you all started. Did you know then that you were creating a whole new?
Schlatter: Well, the deal was NBC had promised me I could do one show my way, and I was working with a brilliantly talented writer in England, his name was Digby Wolfe. He did “That Was the Week That Was” and all of that stuff. We put together this, and NBC finally said I could do it, because they owed me a favor, and they said we could do one show my way, our way, and they got out of the way.
But Digby Wolfe was there and we took a group of very, very talented writers who couldn’t really get into the mainstream, and we sat down and we wrote material, and then we sent it to NBC and they said, “No way,” but they needed a show. They needed a show to put on opposite Lucille Ball and “Gunsmoke,” because they were dying, so they put this in just to get rid of it, and it cost nothing.
So by the time – what happened is by the time Sammy came on and did “Here Come the Judge,” it just took off and they couldn’t stop it then.
Tavis: The most important thing you just said in that last answer is that the network owed you a favor. My whole career I’ve been trying to figure out how to get a network to owe me a favor. How did the network owe you a favor?
Schlatter: Well, you stay on another couple of years, they’re going to owe you a lot, because they do – they always get desperate. Everything I ever did that was a big hit was really kind of an accident. This had to do with the Grammy Awards, and they wanted me to do it and I didn’t want to do it again because we were giving awards to anybody that would show up.
(Laughter) This was before it was the Grammys. I said, “You guys are going to go to jail.” (Laughter) They said, “Oh, okay.” So I said, “I’ll do it one more year if you’ll let me do a show my way,” and then they did, and when they saw it, they were really upset. They said, “What is this? This isn’t a television show.”
I said, “Well, you laughed, and the audience is brighter than you are.” (Laughter) So they put it on the air, kind of like just to get rid of it, and then it went on and it exploded.
Tavis: What did you make of the fact that when you finally get it on the air, it hits, that people actually like it, it’s working, people are laughing.
Schlatter: Well, I’m arrogant now, but you see me 40 years ago with a 50 share, oh, man, you couldn’t talk to me. (Laughter) We did everything.
Tavis: So you weren’t surprised, you knew it was going to work.
Schlatter: Well, we knew that there was a hunger for it. It’s like now – what is on now that really excites you? There’s all of the words, and everybody’s jumping in and out of bed, but is it really funny? It’s outrageous but I’m – one day, we’re going to do it again. We’re getting ready to. It was interesting when we put together the special for PBS, who I just love, by the way – I love them for you and I love them for “Sesame Street” and all the stuff that appeals to people my age. (Laughter)
But so we put this thing together and my daughter had produced – Maria – had produced a show we did, a reunion show, so we took a lot of that and put it together. Going back through those clips just was exciting. It was exciting, it was fun, with Goldie and Lily and Ruth and Jo Anne. Those were outrageous people.
Tavis: We were laughing when we were playing the package here on the studio floor, but I get the sense, and I’m sure you must have sent he same thing, that some of this stuff, most of it, is as funny now as it was then.
Schlatter: It’s almost funnier, because we haven’t fixed any of the problems.
Schlatter: We talked about a war we couldn’t win, we talked about a president who was not at the top of his popularity, we talked about guns and ammunition and about nuclear energy and the threat of nuclear war and all of that stuff. We haven’t solved any problems that we were talking about then.
So if we do it again, damn, we can use some of that material. (Laughter) We haven’t fixed one problem.
Tavis: Two words – actually, three words.
Tavis: Rowan and Martin.
Tavis: Tell me.
Schlatter: They were one of the funniest nightclub acts you ever saw, and to sell the show, Timex wanted a host, and I had worked with them and they were friendly, so I said, “Well, we’ll put Rowan and Martin.” They were a little older, they were more of the establishment, so they were, like, in the middle, and the crazy happened around them. But they were great, because they were a great, great nightclub act.
Tavis: Were people begging you to come on the show when it became a hit, or you were begging them to come on, initially?
Schlatter: Well, not in the beginning, and so we went to people and said, “Come on and just be funny.” Cher had never done a comedy show before. She’d just worked with Sonny. (Laughs) So Sonny sat there and listened to the first script, and Cher was laughing. So Sonny’s going like this – “Where’s the songs?” I didn’t realize he hadn’t seen the show, and he didn’t know there weren’t any songs, right? (Laughter)
So I’m saying, “Oh, the songs – oh.” I said – Billy Barnes, a brilliant musician, I said, “Billy, where’s Cher’s song?” and he looked at me like I’d hit him, and he said, “What?” I said, “You know, the Mountie number?” Well, he said, “The Mountie number?” Anyhow, he went in the room and in 10 minutes came back with a Mountie number, and Cher did it with Tim Conway, and then Billy wound up writing for them. A lot of it was accident. A lot of it was of the moment. It was fun.
Tavis: I assume – the exit question here – I assume, then, that you see “Laugh-In,” if not the, certainly one of the crown jewels in your long and distinguished career in this town?
Schlatter: Yeah. I’ve done a lot of specials with Frank -
Tavis: You have, a lot of them.
Schlatter: – with Sammy and with all of those people, but “Laugh-In,” because it was such a break-out, breakthrough show that changed so much, and like Lorne Michaels was one of the writers on “Laugh-In,” and all of those people grew up in that environment where they could be funny, they could try anything.
Then we went on stage with the script and if anything went wrong, keep that. As a matter of fact (laughter), I’m running a whole thing of 30 minutes of outtakes, the stuff that the censors wouldn’t let us do. Jack Benny came on and screwed up a thing, he said, “I’ll do it again.” I said, “No, you won’t.” (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s kind of how this show works – if it goes wrong, we put it on the air.
Schlatter: No, I see your show; nothing goes wrong on this show.
Tavis: Yeah, well, it went right tonight because we had you on.
Schlatter: Hey, this was great fun.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you. Honored to meet you.
Schlatter: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you here. Thanks for your work all these years.
Schlatter: When we do it again, you’ll come over and hang out with us. I’ll get you saying, “Sock it to me,” or something.
Tavis: I’d be happy to. (Laughter) If Nixon can do it, I can do it.
Schlatter: You can do a lot of things that Nixon could. (Laughter)
Tavis: It’s “The Best of Laugh-In,” check it out right here on PBS.
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