Thirty-eight years ago, way before Saturday Night Live, was one of the most revolutionary TV shows of all time. From 1968 to 1973, Laugh-In captured the zeitgeist of the era, combining blackout comedy of vaudeville tradition with 1960s-style ‘happening’ and psychedelic costume and graphics.
A handful of the cast, Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley and Lily Tomlin, joined the show’s executive producer, George Schlatter, at the TV Critics tour to talk about The Best of Laugh-In, a retrospective which airs on PBS this month.
Who was the first person cast on the show?
George Schlatter: The first person we hired was Ruth. She came into the office and went in the Xerox room to an electric piano and played her own composition of Don’t Futz Around.
Ruth Buzzi: So here I am going to an audition, and I was so frustrated because I didn’t have anything really wonderful to audition with. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll do Don’t Futz Around. It’s a duet and I didn’t have anyone to do it with. It’s two opera singers doing rock and roll for the first time.
George Schlatter: Then Jo Anne Worley came in and I think she ate the desk or something, but she terrified me.
Jo Anne Worley: I didn’t drive a car, so there was a girl, Anne Elder, who lived in the apartment building I was in, and she said, ‘I’ve going to go audition. I’ll take you with me.’ I went in first and we laughed, and George said, ‘I can’t explain what [this show] is. Do you want to do it?’ I said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ And then, Anne went in and didn’t get the job!
George Schlatter: You gotta understand. The writers would sit and write and write. And when they really got a piece that needed to be honed they would say, ‘Give this to Ruth.’ When they needed a piece they weren’t too sure of they said, ‘Give this to Jo Anne.’
Jo Anne Worley: The loudmouth.
Lily, you joined the cast later in the show’s run, do you remember the first time you met with George?
Lily Tomlin: Before I went to see George, I would go and audition some places and people would make the phone ring under their desk, or someone from the typing pool would rush in and say, ‘Your mother’s dying,’ and my audition would be cut short. When I finally got to see George, I did the characters that I had. He was the first one that I really had fun with and who seemed to understand [my humor]
George Schlatter: It was a three-hour audition.
Lily Tomlin: Judy (Carne) had left. She used to answer the switchboard and say, ‘Beautiful downtown Burbank.’ George needed someone at the switchboard, and I just happened to do a telephone operator named Ernestine.
The show went off the air 38 years ago and you all look exactly the same now, what are you doing to remain so young?
Jo Anne Worley: Laughing, absolutely.
How familiar do you think you have to be with the times when Laugh-In was on to appreciate the humor?
Jo Anne Worley: Not at all.
Do you think it’s timeless?
Jo Anne Worley: And if it isn’t exactly timeless, it goes by so quickly you don’t even notice it. Something else is coming up. I just recently saw a lot of the DVDs and they’re really excellent. They are sharp and funny.
George Schlatter: The interesting thing is that the same problems today we talked about back then, we had abortion, we had an unpopular president, we had the war, nuclear energy, we haven’t fixed anything. We still have the same things [wrong]
Ruth Buzzi: That’s why we still look the same!
Your stuff, especially in the party scenes, there were some pretty edgy jokes mixed in. How close did you come to the same kind of fate the Smothers brothers suffered?
George Schlatter: The Smothers had an agenda. We gave it to everybody. We were on both sides. We put Richard Nixon on, so you can’t say we were too far to the left.
Lily did a character who was a church lady, a tasteful lady, and every time she got up, her knees creaked. The network thought it was some other kind of noise, and I said, ‘The woman has arthritis. Shut the hell up!’ That was great.
Lily Tomlin: George is so good-natured, maybe with the Smothers it was more adversarial. I was very rigid politically then, and the Vietnam war was on, and I didn’t want my picture taken with John Wayne. It’s so pitiful. But if I said, ‘George, I cant do this, it’s just too sexist,’ or, ‘It’s too homophobic.’ He’d say, ‘Babe, you don’t have to do it.’
And he’s the same way today. He is unflappable. There’s nothing that bothers him. He could kid a censor out of anything. He could find a way, he could maneuver anything.
Ruth Buzzi: What he would do is tell them a dirty joke, something he was not going to put in the show, and they’d say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ So he’d say, ‘Oh, well then, what about this?’ And it would be one that was slightly less [offensive]’. And they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s better.’
Were there any special moments with certain guest stars?
George Schlatter: Everybody wanted to do the show. They wanted to come out and do a [sketch] with Ruth and with Jo Anne, and they wanted to work with Ernestine. William Buckley, when I asked him to do the show, he said, ‘Not only do I refuse to appear, I resent having been asked.’ When I told him he was going to work with Ernestine, the telephone operator, he said, ‘Well, all right. I’m be there, but no jokes.’ And he did that scene with Lily.
What were Dan Rowen and Dick Martin like to work with?
Jo Anne Worley: We really were like a family, and they were mom and dad.
Ruth Buzzi: They were the greatest bosses I ever had. Dan loved to have fine food and went to fine restaurants. He’s take us for the greatest meals.
George Schlatter: I paid for the meals!
Why do you think the series lasted so long?
Lily Tomlin: Laughter is contagious, and so if you have bunch of people acting crazy on television every Monday night and really having fun, it just translates, and it touches the audience
George Schlatter: I think part of our success was it was silly next to meaningful next to crazy visual, next to political. So you never became aware of an agenda. You never thought we were preaching to you, but hidden in there we got a lot of stuff said!