This past week, it was standing room only at the downtown Burbank Barnes & Noble as attendees enjoyed a two-hour presentation given by groundbreaking television producer George Schlatter, who created “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” and former NBC page Shelley Herman.
Promoting their recently released books, Schlatter’s “Still Laughing: A Life in Comedy” and Herman’s “My Peacock Tale: Secrets of an NBC Page,” the event also served as a reunion for 14 former NBC pages.
At the event, Herman was interviewed by entertainment author Jim Colucci, and Schlatter shared memories at the prodding of comedy historian and author Jeff Abraham.
Among the notables who enjoyed the event were legendary television producer and director Don Mischer, actress and comedian Jann Karam, entertainment journalist and media personality Frank DeCaro of “The Frank DeCaro Show” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and Schlatter’s wife and actress Jolene Brand.
Three years before “Saturday Night Live” premiered, “Laugh-In” gave the nation some of the most comical characters in television history. Along with Jo Anne Worley, who was always on guard against the telling of chicken jokes, there was Arte Johnson’s German soldier who found everything “verrrrry interesting,” Judy Carne’s “Sock it to me” girl,” Goldie Hawn’s bikini-and-Day-Glo-body-paint-clad ditzy blonde, Ruth Buzzi’s frumpy Gladys Ormfby, Lily Tomlin’s telephone operator Ernestine and her precocious little Edith Ann.
Long before “The Arsenio Hall Show” presented presidential candidate Bill Clinton blowing “Heartbreak Hotel” on his sax, Richard Nixon made a cameo on “Laugh-In” to say the four words that became the show’s most famous catchphrase: “Sock it to me.”
First seen in September of 1967 as a one-time comedy special, the show went on to become one of the network’s mid-season replacements. Hosted by the comedy duo of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, “Laugh-In” went from poking irreverent fun at political and social issues of the day to being downright silly for the simple sake of silliness.
The show strung together sight gags, sketches, celebrity cameos, one-liners, inside jokes, musical numbers and regular segments such as the awarding of The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate, the Cocktail Party, Laugh-In Looks at the News — Past, Present and Future, and the Joke Wall.
Charged with opening the show and making non sequitur transitions throughout was the program’s announcer, Gary Owens who, with his hand cupped around his ear, would open each show with his overmodulated baritone voice saying:
“And now — direct from beautiful downtown Burbank — it’s ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.’”
As for those memorable “Laugh-In” phrases, it was Owens who coined “beautiful downtown Burbank.” He actually first came up with that back when he was doing radio at KMPC. While giving weather forecasts he would say: “Here’s the forecast for romantic Reseda, magnificent Monrovia, and beautiful downtown Burbank.” He and Schlatter felt the phrase would work well for “Laugh-In,” because it would serve as an inside joke of sorts for Southern Californians who knew that, back then, downtown Burbank wasn’t exactly any sort of Shangri-La.
“Burbank became like a supporting character — a part of the show’s cast,” said the three-time Emmy Award-winning Schlatter. “Back then there was no beautiful downtown Burbank, so we did that as a joke, to separate us from the glamour of Hollywood.”
Explaining that Burbank city officials initially took umbrage at the fun the show was having at Burbank’s expense, Schlatter said they ultimately came around because they were putting Burbank on the national map.
As for his memories of Burbank during the “Laugh-In” days, Schlatter said it was very different than it is today.
“Chadney’s wasn’t across from NBC yet, and there weren’t many places to go for a drink,” he recalled. “But we didn’t need to go out. We did all of our drinking right at NBC,” he added with a laugh.
Throughout last week’s event, the 93-year-old Schlatter whet the appetite for his book by sharing memories of doing “Laugh-In,” “Real People,” and producing presidential inaugurations, countless television specials, and the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethons. His tome also recounts his early nightclub days, encounters with mob figures like Mickey Cohen, and his work and friendships with showbiz icons such as Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra.
“The book is about my adventures and misadventures,” Schlatter said. “It’s a book that people need right now — something to make you laugh and feel good. That is what ‘Laugh-In’ was all about. We had a great collection of young people who did multiple characters in recurring situations. We provided a platform for women who didn’t have many opportunities to do comedy at that time. We broke all the barriers and appealed to people from 9 to 90, to make them think and laugh.”
Saying that he finds today’s television comedy shows to be dark and not that funny, Schlatter said he feels that is not doing anything to uplift the sprits of viewers.
“On ‘Laugh-In’ we presented brightly colored sets and bright people who were having a good time and letting viewers in on the inside jokes and non sequiturs,” he said. “If someone didn’t get a joke, we didn’t care, we just kept moving along. It seemed silly, goofy and crazy on the surface, and yet it was actually a show that gave you something to both laugh at and think about. We appealed to intellectuals. Today, politics and everything else is so hateful and angry. That is why there is a need for comedy and laughter today like never before. Remember, people don’t throw punches at one another when they’re laughing.”
DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at email@example.com or (818) 563-1007.
First published in the November 11 print issue of the Burbank Leader.