George Schlatter

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 20, 2004, in Los Angeles.

George Schlatter: I’m George Schlatter, and I’m speaking freely whether you like it or not.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Today, our special guest, the award-winning producer and director and the man who created “Laugh-In,” George Schlatter. Welcome.

Schlatter: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Paulson: Good to have you. That’s a pretty good line to say, “I’m the man who created ‘Laugh-In.’” That’s pretty good.

Schlatter: And particularly if it’s true.

Paulson: Impresses people at your high school reunion, I’m sure.

Schlatter: Oh, yeah. No, they’re all dead now.

Paulson: It’s interesting reading about your career. It’s as though you didn’t exist before “Laugh-In.” I have to believe there was a career path to “Laugh-In.” How did you get into television?

Schlatter: Actually the first major show I did was with Dinah Shore, the old “Dinah Shore Chevy Show.” And then we did— I became her producer. And after that, I did the Judy Garland series and then the series with Steve Lawrence and then Bill Cosby and, you know, too much stuff for a man that looks as young as I do.

Paulson: There’s a lot of mystique to having worked with Judy Garland. Were those good years?

Schlatter: They were great. She was a little like having a condo in a … [Laughs] in an avalanche, you know? She was wonderful. I had the best time with her. She was funny. She was outrageous. She loved to laugh. And I think part of our relationship — why it worked so well — was because I made her laugh. And I was more outrageous than she was.

Paulson: There’s a scene in a Judy Garland biography— a film done, which shows her calling the White House trying to save her TV show.

Schlatter: Yeah.

Paulson: Was that the one you worked on?

Schlatter: Yeah, we— I was warned about Judy. And I was very young and so forth, and I never really met her before I was hired. ‘Cause I said, “I don’t know how to audition for Judy Garland.” And so we were doing, like, her second show. And she got upset. And so I went, “Wow.” ‘Cause it was an awesome thing to behold. And so I started singing “Over the Rainbow.” And she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I thought if you were going to produce, I’d sing.” And at that point, she stormed off, and she went into her trailer. We had a trailer we’d hung on the site of CBS because she needed a dressing room. And I went in the trailer, thinking I might have gone too far. And I got a match and I stood on the table underneath the sprinkler. And she said, “What are you doing, you fool?” And I said, “If you don’t apologize, I’m going to drown you.” She said, “Apologize? You made a fool out of me out there.” And I said, “I’m going to drown you.” So she said, “All right, all right, I’m sorry.” So I said, “See that it doesn’t happen again.” So now [laughs]… now, I leave, and she pulled a lamp off a table and chased me down the hall. And at about 20 steps, we both started laughing hysterically, and we went back in, and from then on, it was hysterical. It was wonderful.

Paulson: That had to prepare you for the free spirits that would be the cast of “Laugh-In” a little bit later.

Schlatter: I’ve been with a few that were really adventurous.

Paulson: And so where did “Laugh-In” come from? A dramatically different television series. No one had seen anything like it.

Schlatter: A lot of “Laugh-In” came from the fact that my wife did all the Ernie Kovacs shows. And Ernie and I were dear friends, and I kept hitting on Ernie— “Do jokes. Do punch lines, punch lines.” He said, “No, you don’t have to do punch lines.” So I would always be doing punch lines for Ernie, and she was doing “The Kovacs Show,” and I was doing Dinah and the Chevy shows. And that was part of it. And then part of it was my own love of jokes, and my mom was really funny and so forth. And when I was just starting, I had a job at the St. Louis Municipal Opera, and we’d do one new show every week, but in between dress rehearsals and the show, I’d go downtown and look at burlesque shows, and that’s where I got to know Tommy Moe Raft and Billy “Zoot” Reed and those guys. Just knocked me out. So it was all a mixed bag.

Paulson: In some ways, the show anticipated what has been a trend in American viewing, which is diminishing attention span, where there’s got to be a quick payoff and lots of jokes and material in a very short period of time. Was that based on some scientific research or was that your gut?

Schlatter: My own— my own minimal attention span and the fact that in the ’60s, there was so much to talk about— there was so much political unrest, and there was so much tension and you had the war, and you had, you know, all of that stuff going on, and that was just before J. Edgar Hoover started wearing a ball gown to the office, so we were aware of this upheaval that was going on. So all of that added to the material we could do on “Laugh-In.” And since it was very fast, we could say anything.

Paulson: So what happened the day after “Laugh-In” was on the air for the very first time? Did it get positive reviews?

Schlatter: Well, what happened was, the network didn’t want to air it. They said it was not a television show. They said people couldn’t understand it. And I said, “Well, you guys laughed.” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, the audience out there is brighter than you are, so if they got it—” Anyhow, it went on the air because they had nothing else to put on. And then it did reasonably well. And then they had to have something to put on opposite “Lucy,” because “Lucy” was killing ‘em. And so they said, well, this was cheap, and they bought it just to put on until they could find a show that they thought would work. And it went on, and after a couple of weeks, it just exploded. Sammy came on and did “Here come the judge.” And it just took off. People were hungry for a show that said something and a show that captured the diminishing attention span and that didn’t hang around, you know, in long pieces.

Paulson: Things like “Here come the judge,” or “You bet your bippie” and those things, did you, at one point, after those were— after those catchphrases caught on, were there meetings to invent the next catchphrase?

Schlatter: The catchphrases kind of have— “Here come the judge” actually came out of burlesque. “Pigmeat” Markham did this routine, and Sammy came in to do a guest shot. And we had some judge bits, and we started talking about, “Here come the judge.” And “You bet your bippie” was just a phrase we had because they wouldn’t let us say, “You bet your [mumbling].” See? I’m not going to risk getting bleeped or cut. I’m going to be very careful, because I know what can happen with today’s censorship.

Paulson: There’s a new climate, right, although we believe in free expression. We want to be clear about that.

Schlatter: So long as you don’t say— [laughs]. Everybody believes in free expression, mine not yours. Free expression may go by the way soon.

Paulson: We’re going to come back to that. But let’s talk about free expression at the height of “Laugh-In.” Another television show that, in fact, you influenced, “The Smothers Brothers Show,” had all kinds of trouble with the censors, all kinds of problems with the network, all kinds of trouble with politicians. It seems that you’ve largely escaped that.

Schlatter: Partially because I kept blaming it on the Smothers Brothers. [laughing] We could say, “You can’t say that,” and we said, “You can say it if you were on ‘The Smothers Brothers.’” And Tommy had an agenda. Tommy really wanted to convince you of a political philosophy. And we didn’t. We did jokes on both sides. Obviously we had a position, or we had feelings, you know. But we never tried to really belabor it. And we were so fast that by the time you realized you’d been offended, we were offending someone else.

Paulson: Were there battles with censors? Were there things you couldn’t get past them?

Schlatter: Oh, yeah, there were tons. We put things in just to tease them. And then often, they would leave the wrong thing in. We’d say, “No, not that joke. Take this joke.” And we would tell the band not to laugh. The censors could judge. If they heard the band laugh, they knew there was something in there that shouldn’t be. They didn’t know what it was, but there was something. And they really tried. We put about six of them in the home. They just couldn’t deal with it because of the mass of material, you know? And then by the time they’d found out what we’d done may have been a bit bawdy, we were on to something else. We had— one day, Judy Carne’s wig flew off. She said, “Sock it to me,” and her wig flew off. And she says, “I’ve never been bald before.” And they said you can’t make fun of people with no hair. They didn’t realize it had a mild sexual connotation until it aired in England, and then they said, “What was that?”

Paulson: Were you able to— were things that you intended to get in that you could disguise, then?

Schlatter: Well, we disguised everything, you know. What we would do sometimes is to do the piece that was provocative in the middle of the joke, and then when we edited, we’d edit the second half. So it just kind of hung there. But it was— we weren’t dirty. We were just playful. We were bawdy. We were reflecting the times, the sexy ’60s, you know? And you had— think about it. You had the Beatles, and you had girls burning their bras, and you had, you know, cannabis was just coming into its own. And you had the war eating at everybody. So we had all of that going on with the unrest of the ’60s. It made it very fertile soil.

Paulson: You had a lot of big names on the show, but probably the biggest was the president. It was Richard Nixon running for— running for the presidency. And you got him on there to say, “Sock it to me.” It was sort of a question at the end. “Sock it to me?”

Schlatter: We got him to say— you know, he’d turn, and he’d say, “Sock it to me?” And he said, “Sock it to me.” “No, Mr. Nixon, could you just do it— kind of smile.” “Oh, sorry, I’m new at this. You know, sorry. Sock it to me.” “No, no, no, Mr. Nixon.” [laughs] Six takes we finally got it.

Paulson: I’m surprised that the people who advised him on the campaign would say— give him the green light to do that.

Schlatter: They didn’t. They advised him not to. And they were off doing some things, and his friend was Paul Keyes, who was one of the writers on “Laugh-In.” And Paul talked to him. He said, “This will be very good for you. It will improve your image. It’ll give you an image of being younger and hipper in a movement like that.” And we taped it and left. And by the time they figured out we’d done it, we were gone like a porch climber.

Paulson: And, of course, it had that impact. It was as loose as Richard Nixon has ever appeared to be, and so why no Hubert Humphrey? Why was his rival—

Schlatter: We tried; when I realized what we might have done, we traced — you know — Hubert Humphrey, we chased him all over the country. And he later said he should have done it because that was probably one of the things that won the election for Nixon.

Paulson: The turning point.

Schlatter: Yeah, but I can’t take all the blame. [Laughing.]

Paulson: A pivotal moment in American history.

Schlatter: “Sock it to me?” But he enjoyed it. He had a good time, and he realized that it made him look hip.

Paulson: And actually that’s probably set the tone for politicians ever since.

Schlatter: Ever since then, yeah.

Paulson: They have to show up on “Letterman,” and they have to show up on “Leno.”

Schlatter: ‘Cause it made him appear to be a nice guy, you know? So it proves you can fool anybody.

Paulson: You had a remarkable cast on the show, just great talents. You clearly had an eye for talent. I’d like to throw some names out and just get your thoughts about them, working with them, and how well they’ve done since then. Goldie Hawn would be one that comes to mind.

Schlatter: Magic. Delightful, magic.

Paulson: And turned out to be a heck of an actress.

Schlatter: Oh. Probably, see, Goldie— Goldie— They say, “Well, this dumb blonde.” Goldie was never dumb. Goldie was one of the brightest members of the cast. Goldie was easily distracted. And once she realized that I was going to use anything she did, then she thought it was funny. Like, “Oh, don’t use that.” Don’t worry. No, never, you know? But we did a lot of that to her, you know?

Paulson: And then at one point when you’d begun to lose some of your early first-generation of people, Lily Tomlin walks in.

Schlatter: Lily Tomlin. Lily Tomlin is a pure genius. She walked into my office the day I met her, and I wouldn’t let her go until she’d signed a contract. She just sat at this table, and all of these people appeared in front of me, and it was like, “I don’t believe it.” And I just was crazy about that woman from the moment she walked in my office. When she walked onstage and did the first Ernestine— you know, [snorts] “Oh, Mister…” things we got away with. Lily Tomlin, right before she taped her first piece, I said, “Lily, Lily. Wait, wait.” She said, “What?” I said, “When you dial, dial with this finger.” And nobody till today ever knew that when she would call— you know, she’d go [snorting]— she would always dial with this finger like a lance, you know. Nobody ever figured it out. Now the cat’s out the bag, and she can’t do it anymore. And there will be— Thank God you don’t have a big audience.

Paulson: It’s getting smaller all the time.

Schlatter: Well, now … thank you.

Paulson: In “Laugh-In’s” later years— You’re on TV now, aren’t you, someplace?

Schlatter: Oh, it’s on all over the world. We just released DVDs, and it’s on, you know, infomercials and stuff. But that whole cast — I mean, Arte Johnson was— Arte Johnson could be a new character every three minutes, and Ruth Buzzi was a pure delight. And Jo Anne— Jo Anne (Worley) was like the arrival of the troop of Green Berets, you know?

Paulson: How did you know that Rowan and Martin would be good for this kind of—

Schlatter: They— (Dan) Rowan and (Dick) Martin did one of the funniest nightclub acts ever. And they were kind of out of the loop. You know, Dan was older and much more conservative, you know. And Dick was out of town a lot, you know. And— but they fit with this group of whackos circling around them. They were our center. They were our pivot. And it worked very, very well. And they were funny. They did a hell of a nightclub act.

Paulson: You know, I read a quote from you not long ago. It said, “Working with stars is rewarding, but helping to create stars is the most fulfilling of all accomplishments.” And I guess in that list would also— you’d include Robin Williams.

Schlatter: Robin Williams, certainly.

Paulson: You recruited him for a second generation.

Schlatter: Yeah, but there were— There were— Like Flip Wilson was on seven of the first 14 shows. And we got lucky. I mean, first of all, you see, and you say, “I like that person.” You see them, right? But then you give them something to do that really is tailored for them. The cast on “Laugh-In” got the joke. The stars came in and got the middle joke, but one and three went to the cast. And that’s why they exploded like they did.

Paulson: As you watch television today, what do you see as the logical descendants of “Laugh-In”?

Schlatter: I— very little, because I don’t think they have the freedom today. I mean, they’re— most of the shows today, sitcoms, (are) centered mostly about sex. There’s very little political satire on the air. Certainly “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is an adventure, because they do what we did a little bit. Take a premise, and we would do that. Then we would go on, and if anything happened, we would continue to tape— and that whole feeling of accident, the whole feeling of danger that we had is now on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which I think is a brilliant show.

Paulson: Why no political satire? We live in political times.

Schlatter: Why? Why aren’t you on a network? Why aren’t you on at 8:00 five days a week?

Paulson: Many reasons for that.

Schlatter: Why no political satire? They don’t have a sense of humor, these guys— You know, you start doing— you start doing Bush jokes, or you start featuring Al Franken too often, and you’ll be, you know, a memory. There’s no political satire ’cause I think they’re too funny to make fun of.

Paulson: My.

Schlatter: It’s dangerous out there when you start doing comment kind of satire. They don’t like it.

Paulson: Let’s jump ahead a couple years. You had this groundbreaking television show in “Laugh-In” and then a totally different show, “Real People,” comes along in which you tell the story of real people, interesting people across the country. Where did that come from?

Schlatter: It came from— I was skiing with Stein Erickson in Utah, and I got a call from Fred Silverman, and he said, “Can you do something funny with real people?” And I said, “I’ll call you back.” And by the time I got to the lodge and had a glass of wine, I called him, and I said, “It’s a great show, and it’s a great idea, and it’s a great title.”

Paulson: Are you the father of reality programming, then?

Schlatter: I think— well, I think that before “Real People,” there had been “Candid Camera.” And there had been documentaries and so forth, but that kind of popular programming, yeah, ’cause we were the first ones to use the NG cameras. We were the first one to do that kind of thing on location with cast, and then, again, it’s like electing Nixon. I didn’t know what I was starting then, and I didn’t know what I was starting with reality programming. We never ate frogs or cockroaches or did any of that.

Paulson: That’s what’s kind of interesting about it is that “Real People” didn’t feel manipulated. It didn’t— it felt like you were actually capturing sometimes odd people, sometimes interesting, sometimes funny people, but it didn’t feel contrived.

Schlatter: It was the people. We would do the research, and we would show up, and whatever happened, that was what was going to happen, you know. Very strange things happened. Sarah Purcell, who was also another brilliant performer, went out to interview these two miners, and when she got there, she realized they were both deaf. And they’d lived there for years and never heard each other. So she was trying to interview them, and they both talked at the same time. And it was an absolute shambles, but it turned into one of the best pieces we ever did. So accident— part of the problem with television today is, we’ve removed accident. We’ve put a net under it. I mean, back then, it was television without a net. If it went wrong, it went wrong. If it went, you know— we kept it. And that’s what I miss now. Everything is so perfect.

Paulson: The reality programming that you see today, what do you think of it?

Schlatter: You got any other questions?

Paulson: We’re sticking with this question.

Schlatter: OK. I mean, there must be another question. You want to look at my driving record? I think it’s opportunistic. I think it’s kind of a shame that we’re putting that much on the air that is exploitive and that is uncomfortable. The only thing good about reality television is, it keeps television from becoming wall-to-wall news, because if you want violence and sex and violence, you only have to look at the news. So the reality television gives us a break in that, but it’s fascinating to watch. The thing with Donald, you know, Trump. Here’s this guy, you know. He’s a big star. Help me. But there’s— I mean, what really happened to our values? Here, I’ll marry you for $1 million. No, wait a minute. I’ll marry you for $16 million. I’m going to marry you. You think I have $16 million, but when you marry, you’ll find out I’m broke. Sounds like Jackie Mason. That’s entertainment.

Paulson: Are there reality programs that you admire today?

Schlatter: “60 Minutes.” No, I mean, they’re well done, and they put a lot of time and a lot of money and a lot of camera tricks and so forth. But when you get down to it, when you peel everything away, you say, “What is it?” It’s a person really making a fool out of themselves. And if you want that, you can look at the news. [Laughing.]

Paulson: We’ve been basking now in the glow of your success. Let’s go back to a couple of stinkers. A show called “Turn-On.”

Schlatter: Yes, I’m more proud of that than anything. I’m in The Guinness Book of World Records.

Paulson: The shortest running of any television show — it was cancelled during the show.

Schlatter: It was cancelled during the show. Fifteen minutes in, this brain donor in Cleveland wanted them to continue running “Peyton Place,” so he called all of the affiliates and said, “This is gonna be trash, and we got”— So they called each other as the show went across the country. It was being cancelled from city to city to city. And by the time I arrived at the opening night party, it was off the air. But it was some of the best stuff I ever did.

Paulson: Well, for those who weren’t tuned in for those 12 minutes, could you talk a little bit about what that show was about?

Schlatter: Well, it was a show done with shadowless light, which you see now in commercials. There were no … . There was no line. So we could do our opticals within the camera, little images, big images. It was done with synthesized sound, no audience. It was done faster, probably, than “Laugh-In” was. And it was just an experience more than a performance show, and it was great. All the things you see now on television, a lot of those techniques came out of— multiple images— all of that came out of what we did on “Turn-On.”

Paulson: And it was provocative, and it was—

Schlatter: Oh, it was provocative, all right. Tim Conway, I remember, kept trying to commit suicide. He’d pick up the newspaper and then try to commit suicide, and he said, “Is that funny?” I said, “I think that’s pretty funny.”

Paulson: And what year was that?

Schlatter: I think it was ’70, something like that.

Paulson: And then another show that actually got through its first airing, anyway, was a pilot for something called “Soul,” which was an all-black cast at a time when that didn’t exist.

Schlatter: It had never been on before, and it was all the black comics, and it was— I sent a copy of it to Damon Wayans, and that became, you know, “In Living Color.” It was with the girls dancing and so forth. And what happened was— it was great. I mean, some of my failures are my favorites, you know, because it was an all-black show with black writers and all black kids. There was two white people in it: Digby Wolfe and myself, who had been one of the creators of “Laugh-In,” a prime mover in “Laugh-In.” And it was a well-done show. It was very, very funny. But the network — I couldn’t understand why they didn’t buy it as a series. They didn’t buy it as a series ’cause they said they could never cancel it. You think they’re dumb today. That was— they couldn’t cancel the show, so that’s why they didn’t put it on as a series. It was hysterical. It was Redd Foxx’s first time on television.

Paulson: You clearly take pride in your career in television. You’ve made some great achievements. But overall, do you think television is serving the American public the way it can and should today?

Schlatter: Well, there’s just so much of it, you know? And there’s a lot of trash TV, but if you want to see good television, it’s there. You can find more good music, more art, more culture, more documentaries, more geography. You can find all of that on television if you care to look. If you don’t care to look, then you call your neighbor and say “Why don’t we complain?” You know, television had a wonderful invention in the very beginning (that) was an on and off switch, and then they— then they came up with this dial changer. So if you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it. You can turn it off, or you can change the channel. But some people would rather just wait and complain about it, you know?

Paulson: So we have more good television on than ever before and also more bad television.

Schlatter: Yes, we do. You have more television, you know. The use of television is what’s— what you got to look out for.

Paulson: That’s right. And I think kids watch more TV today than at any time.

Schlatter: Yeah, and they blame television. Of course, every four years— when there’s gonna be a presidential election, immediately, they say, “Let’s blame it all on television.” And then they say, “That’s what’s wrong with the children today. It’s television, you know, because somewhere around the ’60s, ’70s, the parents turned their children over to television to raise them, to educate them, to inform them, and they said, “Here you are,” and when what came back was kind of numb, they said, “What happened? It’s television’s fault.” No, it’s not. Television is not a babysitter, and it’s not a teacher.

Paulson: Well, we’ve had a lot of talk about a word, indecency, lately.

Schlatter: Yes.

Paulson: And I’m sure people thought Goldie Hawn dancing in that bikini was indecent at the time.

Schlatter: I can promise you, no one thought that was indecent. I mean, you know—

Paulson: Nowhere?

Schlatter: No, nobody did. It was just so cute, you know? She was just— I mean, she had— you know, she was a very skinny little girl, you know? I mean, the only girl we could find with two backs. I mean, she was just— she was in that bikini. But strangely enough, this child, this woman-child was— turned on the whole country. And— but it wasn’t indecent.

Paulson: You wouldn’t make that comment about Janet Jackson and one second — millisecond at the Super Bowl got the attention of the whole country and the FCC and every politician on the planet, it seems. What do you think about this recent surge to control what is described as indecent content?

Schlatter: Well, it’s an election year, so you can expect that. Janet Jackson— that two-second shot— which, by the way, they have now enlarged, enhanced, slo-mo’d, run it over backwards and forwards in everyday part. I don’t know— the people who are concerned about our children, weren’t they concerned about continually running that shot over and over again and overlooking a lot of the things in the Super Bowl? One, it was a great game, and two, there were other commercials that were in much more questionable taste. And I did an interview once on Fox which upset them a little. I said they should be commended for having run that shot over and over because they managed to make Janet Jackson’s breast the most famous boob on television since Rush Limbaugh. And the interview ended right then, you know?

Paulson: Well, we are running short on time.

Schlatter: [Chortling.] Are you? I’ll be out of here in a minute. A guy with a hook—

Paulson: So is it your sense that it’s cyclical, that we’ll— that this, too, shall pass?

Schlatter: Yeah, you can’t un-ring the bell. I mean, it’s out there, you know, and our sense of outrage— how can we be at war, and we see— in between the shots of Janet Jackson’s poor little breast exposed, we see the Kobe Bryant trial and describe in great detail what the charges are, and the Michael Jackson trial and describe— and then them dragging this poor woman out of the river every 10 minutes for the Laci (Peterson) trial. And it goes on and on and on. And then we say, “Here’s— a terrible thing happened last night. Janet— we saw Janet Jackson’s breast. And now here’s another number from MTV.” We’ve lost all sense of proportion. But it is healthy because violence has now been acceptable with the passions. Now we can accept violence. We’ve gone more violent than anything in the world. So nobody’s talking about sex and violence. They’re only talking about sex.

Paulson: Do you think it’s a matter of time before creators regain perspective? I mean, they’re— a lot of people are changing content. They seem a little rattled by things. And it’s probably healthy too for a creator to say, “Am I— is my content inappropriate?”

Schlatter: It’s long overdue. And it’s a good thing. But when we get into fining somebody $500,000 for accidentally uttering the F-word— what’s the mystery about the F-word, right? And they say— it’s like nobody ever heard this— every kid in the world has heard the F-word, and some of them have even said the F-word, but we’re horrified at that and fining people $500,000 for using it, not even in a sexual connotation, you know, so… .

Paulson : It’s always that dynamic, though, between what society is actually experiencing and what reflects on the television screen, and sooner or later, one catches up with the other, but between those two periods, there’s always confrontation and conflict.

Schlatter: Yeah, which is good, which is good, ’cause television is in the home, and it’s good to have that conflict I would— to me— to me, lying is a bigger sin than uttering the F-word, you know? I mean, ’cause we’ve been told some whoppers. That, to me, should be fined $500,000.

Paulson: I think you’ve told us the truth and nothing but the truth today. It’s been a pleasure having you here with us.

Schlatter: All right, can you use any of this at all?

Paulson : Yeah, three to four minutes, I think we got— Yeah, I think we absolutely— Our guest today: George Schlatter. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”