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Nixon gets socked in Laugh-In’s most famous, and influential, five seconds

He’s only on-screen for five seconds. Richard Nixon, that is. The man who just two months later would be elected to the world’s most powerful office. There he is, saggy cheeks and all, on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In no less, saying, “Sock it to meee?” People who were on set that day say it took a few takes for Nixon to deliver his big line without sounding disgruntled. And that’s exactly what Nixon didn’t want. Conventional wisdom held that Nixon lost the 1960 presidential campaign the moment he appeared unkempt and angry against the cool John F. Kennedy in a televised debate. So the last thing Nixon needed was to come across as a dope on TV again. And Laugh-In head writer Paul W. Keyes wouldn’t have that either. Keyes was a loyal Republican who’d written jokes for Nixon’s speeches, and he didn’t intend to embarrass one of Laugh-In’s biggest “gets.” Sure, Nixon sounds a little strange, his voice rising at the end of the line as though he’d never heard the word “me” before. But he looks… okay. Acceptable. Good enough. And anyway, it’s just five seconds. 

For Nixon, this was a favor to a friend, and a chance to look loose and likable in front of an enormous television audience. (Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey turned down his invitation, which didn’t exactly change his reputation as a humorless tool of an indifferent establishment.) But for Keyes, NBC executive Ed Friendly, Laugh-In producer George Schlatter, and hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, landing a cameo from Nixon was a statement—not of politics, but of power. Laugh-In had debuted as a one-off special in September of 1967, doing well enough to get picked up as a mid-season replacement for NBC in January of 1968. But this unconventional, half-crazed variety show was stuck on Monday nights, up against the entrenched Gunsmoke and The Lucy Show—two Top 10 series for CBS—and so it took a month or two for Laugh-In to become a sensation. It ended its abbreviated first season as the No. 1 show in the country, and the creative team intended to come back for its second season with a show of strength.

Hence the September 16, 1968 episode—the Nixon episode. Over the course of its first 15 hours (including the pilot), Laugh-In had established a frenetic pace and kaleidoscopic style, and had introduced new catchphrases to the pop-culture lexicon, most notably “sock it to me,” a weird kind of chant/suggestion that was usually accompanied by shots of the gamine British starlet Judy Carne getting pounded. (In the season première, right before Nixon’s cameo, Carne gets roundly clobbered, suffering every “sock it to me” imaginable, right down to having her dress ripped off and getting soaked with water.) With season two, Laugh-In doubled down, adding new cast members and new catchphrases, and exuding an attitude of confidence, putting across the idea that this show was the place to be, and that these people were the coolest and cleverest in Hollywood. Rowan and Martin even acknowledge this at the top of the show, asking their cast how they spent their summer vacations, touching off a run of cackling, boastful sexual innuendo. The implication is clear: These folks were the desirable studs in ’68.

Laugh-In didn’t come from nowhere. The structure of the show—rapid-fire jokes heavy on double entendres, bad puns, and self-reference—derives from the “Ole” Oleson and “Chic” Johnson Broadway revue Hellzapoppin. The pop-psychedelic visual style is fully of its time, akin to The Monkees, Batman, and the films of Richard Lester. The topicality of the jokes puts Laugh-In in the same general sphere as That Was The Week That Was and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The overall sense of play was in the spirit of Ernie Kovacs, whom Laugh-In producer Schlatter admired (and was friends with). And presiding over it all were Rowan and Martin, a comedy team who’d been doing their “wry sophisticate patiently deals with dim-witted lothario” routine since the early ’50s, but had never before found a TV vehicle that suited them. These elements combined into a workable formula, allowing the Laugh-In crew the latitude to throw just about anything into a show: a performance by freaky singing nostalgist Tiny Tim (whom Laugh-In had made into a household name, and whom the entire cast dresses up as in the 9/16/68 episode); Dick Martin’s Johnny Carson impression; a clip of John Wayne declining an offer to follow up his season one cameo; an so on, boundlessly. Everything fit.

Laugh-In’s two biggest stocks-in-trade were its celebrity cameos and its right-up-to-the-edge-of-acceptable sex jokes. The Nixon episode is littered with actual stars: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Hugh Hefner, Jack Lemmon and, um… Sonny Tufts (who incredulously says the name of whatever star has just appeared, in a nod to his own reputation as Hollywood’s most famous unknown). As for the “is this dirty or not?’ material, the 9/16/68 Laugh-In is littered with that too: The female cast members sing a schoolyard chant about how horny they are; there’s some tittering over the words “thespian” and “matriculate,” as well as the crude-sounding name of the dictionary publisher Funk & Wagnalls; the phrase “Anne Bancroft is an undergraduate” pops up on screen, and the question “Is there any alcohol in cider?” gets the answer “Insider her what?”; and the hosts discuss whether they’re still allowed to use their big season-one catchphrase, “You bet your sweet bippy,” or whether that’s too suggestive. (Nixon was reportedly asked to say “bippy” on the show, but opted for “sock it to me” instead.)

One of the finest of Laugh-In’s sorta-filthy phrases was “the flying fickle finger of fate,” as in, “We don’t give a flying [censored].” Except that Laugh-In did give a Flying Fickle Finger Of Fate, in the form of an award, given out in one of the few segments of the show that was overtly political. Laugh-In wasn’t The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour; its writing staff featured a mix of staunch conservatives like Keyes and young leftists like Canadian comedian Lorne Michaels, who were united in their commitment to filling an hour with as many jokes as possible, regardless of the target. But occasionally that target was the Vietnam War, or Charles de Gaulle, or the United States Congress “for ignoring the wishes of 200,000,000 Americans and delaying passage of a gun-control law.” Most frequently, Laugh-In challenged racism, by making comments about how George Wallace’s “sheets are ready,” or saying that Wallace is “not opposed to individual freedoms, he just doesn’t want them to fall into the wrong hands.” There’s an especially pointed joke in the 9/16/68 episode, in a sketch where Arte Johnson plays a Southern college administrator who praises a black medical student to Henry Gibson, then tells the student to report to a clinic to wash windows.

But to call Laugh-In progressive would be a stretch. In 1968, the show added Alan Sues, a gay comedian in the Charles Nelson Reilly/Paul Lynde mode: coy about his actual sexuality but willing to play the stereotyped, over-the-top, fashion-obsessed pansy. (In the “What did you do this summer?” montage, Sues’ answer is “camp.”) Laugh-In’s portrayals of the hippie generation also tended toward the cartoonish, showing the younger set as spaced-out, unwashed druggies in shabby clothes. Even the title of the series was a spoof of the whole protest-movement era.

And Laugh-In’s treatment of women? Not exactly sterling, especially in the early seasons. Laugh-In featured a diverse cast of gifted female comedians: Carne, giggly ingénue Goldie Hawn, brash giantess Jo Anne Worley, fearless character actress Ruth Buzzi, and more. But many of the show’s jokes involved the women being stripped, dropped through trapdoors, and depicted as boy-crazy. According to Hal Erickson’s book “From Beautiful Downtown Burbank”: A Critical History Of Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In, 1968-1973, the female cast members resented having to spend hours each week getting their bodies painted so they could dance around in bikinis for the “Mod Mod World” segment. And Hawn hated that Schlatter would mess with her cue cards, in order to maintain her reputation as an airhead. (In fairness to Schlatter, Hawn is pretty adorable when she’s fumbling her way through lines; while a lot of Laugh-In looks stale now, Hawn’s segments still feel fresh.) Not until Lily Tomlin arrived halfway through season three did Laugh-In have a woman in the cast who broke the show’s mold.

Before Laugh-In reached that point, though, there were concerns about whether it could maintain its momentum even into a second season. The show had cleaned up at the 1968 Emmys (back in the days when the variety category was as big a deal as comedy or drama), but showbiz veterans whispered nervously about the unwieldiness of the entire production. Because it wasn’t easy to cut on videotape in those days, Laugh-In required a multi-stage editing process, with the show’s unsung hero, editor Arthur Schneider, assembling a rough cut on kinescopes before proceeding to supervise a final tape-cut. And the scripts were enormous, because the producers liked to put jokes on separate pages so they could be easily shuffled around or removed during the shoot. 

The jokes never stopped on Laugh-In. Even over the closing credits, the cast would pop out of holes in the “joke wall” to deliver a few more one-liners. Some of the gags were hoary, like the one about the rabbi who got hit with a baseball, “right in the temple.” (After that one, a writer comes out and begs the audience, “Stop me before I steal again!”) Some were dry, like when announcer Gary Owens says that the upcoming performer will be “asking the musical question: ‘Old Man River.’” And some were weird non-sequiturs, often with the usual vaguely vulgar Laugh-In overtones. The 9/16/68 episode throws in a shot of a caped Australian playing a giant didgeridoo and has Barbara Feldon whispering the word “fuchsia” into the camera right before a commercial break. Most sketches would last seconds, followed by a series of lightning-quick “toppers,” often by the celebrity guests. Even the longer pieces—like the groovy weekly “party”—were essentially short blackout sketches, linked by dancing and music.

Erickson’s book contains an insightful quote from Schlatter, commenting on whether or not Laugh-In was ahead of the curve for late-’60s popular culture. Schlatter says, “I don’t think we were that far ahead. We were on it, not necessarily ahead of it. But most television is behind it—and that’s the difference.” In other words: Laugh-In wasn’t too hip for the room, but it felt hip enough. And during the years that the show was on, it was ubiquitous. There was a Laugh-In comic strip, a chain of Laugh-In fast-food restaurants selling “Bippy Burgers,” a series of comedy albums and paperbacks, a theatrical tour, a board game, and other merchandise.

And then there were the Laugh-In imitators, like Schlatter’s own Turn-On, an edgier spin on the formula that ABC canceled after one episode (and that some affiliates famously pulled before it finished airing); the more cornily patriotic What’s It All About, World?; and the counterculture-oriented Music Scene. The show’s influence carried on for years, altering the style of everything from commercials to kiddie shows. (The Electric Company, for one, was like Laugh-In for first-graders.)

Yet for a show that was so enormously popular and influential, Laugh-In hasn’t had the staying power of some of the other big shows of its time. It hasn’t lived on in syndication like The Andy Griffith Show (which was No. 1 in the Nielsens pre-Laugh-In) or All In The Family (No. 1 shortly after Laugh-In’s run); and outside of Hawn, Tomlin, and arguably Gibson, there’s not a lot of “early days of a rising star” appeal to watching the repeats today. It’s not the dated references that make Laugh-In seem less vital now—at least not entirely—but more that the content of the show was dusty even in 1968, snazzy presentation aside. The creators didn’t just pay homage to vaudeville; they made “chitlin’ circuit” legend Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham a regular. Their guest stars were Bob Hope and Sonny Tufts—Sonny Tufts?!—not Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson. Laugh-In burned bright, and burned fast. Viewers were eager to see Rowan and Martin on their TV for an hour each week between 1968 and 1973; but in 1969, the year of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, they weren’t as interested in seeing the duo in the horror spoof The Maltese Bippy.

As for Nixon, he squeaked into office, beating Humphrey by a scant half-million popular votes, with the third-party Wallace coming in a strong third. (In the electoral college, the count was Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, Wallace 46.) Did Laugh-In elect Nixon? Schlatter has said that he felt somewhat responsible, and apologized for the cameo in interviews years later. But of course politics is never that cut-and-dried. That one “sock it to me” didn’t put Nixon over the top, any more than that one debate with JFK sunk him in 1960. Just as responsible: the Democrats alienating the youth vote with their tumultuous Chicago convention; Wallace siphoning off votes from the Dixiecrats; and Nixon giving speeches and running ads implying that he had a secret plan for “peace with honor” in Vietnam.

The style of those ads—impressionistic, youth-oriented, down-to-earth—were part of a calculated plan to remake Nixon’s image in the wake of two unsuccessful campaigns. In that way, Laugh-In did serve Nixon—not necessarily by handing him the election, but by forming one square in the larger mosaic of a relatable, electable Nixon. And maybe the Nixon campaign learned a little something from Laugh-In, too, namely: If we’re speaking their language, does it matter what we’re saying?

Note: In addition to Hal Erickson’s book “From Beautiful Downtown Burbank”: A Critical History Of Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In, 1968-1973, I recommend Kliph Nesteroff’s article “The Comedy Writer That Helped Elect Richard Nixon” for more about Laugh-In’s politics and Nixon’s campaign.

Next time, on A Very Special EpisodeThe Morton Downey Jr. Show, “Is Pro Wrestling Fake?”