For George Schlatter, the creator of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, there was a key moment when the Classic TV comedy sketch series had gone from an oddity to cultural phenomenon: Sammy Davis, Jr., an old friend, was making a guest appearance on the show. They were joking around with comedy bits involving a judge, when, according to George, Sammy came up with the phrase, "Here come da judge!", which would lead into a sketch about the banter between a defendant and a judge dressed in black robe and oversized wig (becoming a national catchphrase in the process).

"We taped 'Here Come Da Judge' at two in the morning," says George exclusively. "It was so funny that we put it on the next show. Suddenly people were walking down the hall saying, 'Here come da judge.' The show went on that Monday night, and Tuesday or Wedneday morning when the Supreme Court came into the courtroom, somebody in the back of the room said, 'Here come da judge!' Well, the whole courtroom cracked up, and when they heard a laugh in the Supreme Court, people were, like, 'Wait a minute? What is this?'"

What it was, was an antidote to the typical variety show and a solution to a creative boredom that George was feeling in his career by the mid 1960s. "I had done The Judy Garland Show, I'd done The Steve Lawrence Show, and I'd done The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and they were all pretty much the same show," he says. "The host came out, sang, sat on a stool, did a duet, etc. At the same time, I was doing The Best On Record for NBC, which was the early Grammy Awards. There was no award, there was no academy, but we kept doing it. It was just the very beginning of it, and I didn't want to do it anymore, because we were giving an award to anybody who would show up. But the network had sold it and said they wanted me to continue, so I said I would do one more year if they let me do one special my way with no interference and no suggestions. And they said yes, not really meaning it."

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The result was Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, which was designed to be a one-shot TV special that aired on Sept. 9, 1967 and was pretty much unlike anything else on the air, consisting of a rapid-fire series of jokes and sketches — which were filled with political humor and sexual innuendo — but which was edited together so quickly that half the time you were left wondering, "Did they just say….?" The special was co-hosted by the comedy duo of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Dan as the straight man to Dick's dumb guy routine — which they had made famous in their nightclub act. Performers in that special were Ruth Buzzi, Judy Carne, Henry Gibson, Larry Hovis , Arte Johnson, Barbara Feldon (Agent 99 in Get Smart making a "guest" appearance), and Jo Anne Worley, with Gary Owens (hand famously cupped over his ear) as the announcer. Additional cast members coming later would include Lily Tomlin, Eileen Brennan, Teresa Graves, and Goldie Hawn.

"None of them auditioned, and none of them had any real credits," George explains. "Arte Johnson was selling suits at Carols, Ruth Buzzi had been a second banana to Dom DeLuise, Goldie Hawn was a dancer — where were you going to find a show for someone as unique as her? Rowan & Martin were a great saloon act, a great nightclub act. Those guys disturbed the format the least; they were older, they wore tuxedoes and people loved them, because they were outside of the sphere that we were in. They were not doing political humor, they were doing Rowan & Martin's nightclub act, and it worked, because the audience was comfortable with them, whereas many of the cast members made them uncomfortable. Lily Tomlin had these endless characters. She came in for our first meeting, which she thought was an audition, and she introduced all of these characters, opening up a closet full of fabulous people that she had done in her standup. She did Ernestine the telephone operator, and Edith Ann… all those people just kind of poured out of Lily. She came in one day and said, 'Can you make me a rocking chair six or seven feet tall?' We did, because she wanted to be five-year-old Edith Ann. The first day she sat in the rocking chair, we taped material that went on that next week, because it was just magic. The audience had never seen anybody do that many characters in one show. Same thing with Goldie. Goldie walked on and the audience just fell in love with her. Ruth Buzzi and Joanne Worley were loud people that walked in, did a bit and they'd be famous for it in the next week.


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"None of them were known and we just made it into a huge, semi-adult playpen," he continues. "We took my own minimal attention span, my own sense of having fun, and we collected creative people. We had this group of people that really didn't have a home in the normal variety format. They weren't sitcom people. They weren't movie stars. They were young, attractive, outrageous character people that we put into one basket. And we just had a good time, without any rules except for the one that said, contractually, the network would not interfere with us. Nobody from the network was there when we taped the pilot. It was just us, at two o'clock in the morning."

Laugh-In as a series was born out of network desperation.

Part of that freedom came out of a bit of network desperation as NBC didn't have a companion piece for the Miss America competition that was being aired in 1967, and since they had to air Laugh-In anyway, they scheduled it after the pageant. Notes George, "So they put it on the air and what happened was, the show didn't get much of a rating, because there was nobody on the show that anybody ever heard of. It didn't do that well, but it created some noise within the press and within the community. Then, NBC had nothing to put on Monday nights at 8:00 against Lucille Ball and Gunsmoke, which were the number one and two shows, right? So Laugh-In went to series and they put it on there as cannon fodder. They said, 'Well, we'll put it on the air just until we can get a real show ready.' That was in January 1968 and for the first three or four weeks it didn't do anything, though it did create a lot of interest in the business."


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But then the show started to connect with the public, who knew that they were watching something different. That was a conclusion that the network censors came to at about the same time. "Oh, they came to us with a notebook full of comments," laughs George, "and they said, 'Well, you can't say this, you can't say that, you can't…' By the time we were finished negotiating with the censors, the show was already on the air. They said that we were talking about subjects that weren't discussed at that point. Things like mixed marriages, or news of the future. Like, '20 years from now with marriage in the church now an accepted practice, the Archbishoop and his lovely bride, the former Sister Mary Catherine, both announced, 'This time it's for keeps, if only for the sake of the children.' Well, when that went on the air, they said, 'You can't believe the amount of phone calls we got.' I said, 'How many calls did you get last week?' 'Why?' 'You got calls, because people were watching. They'll watch next week to see what we'll do next.' Once the show started getting huge ratings — we were getting a 50 share, which means that 50 percent of people watching television were watching us — we pretty much had free rein. It was huge. A man by the name of Herb Schlosser was the head of NBC and they would say to him, 'Mr. Schlosser, we've got a problem with this George Schlatter. Will you talk to him?' Herb would say, 'George, come in here!' I'd go in there and he'd say, 'Keep doing what you're doing!' I'm arrogant now, but if you can imagine me 50 years ago with a 50 share…forget about it!"

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Laugh-In had sketches like "Sock It to Me!", which usually had Judy Carne utter the phrase, resulting in her being doused in water, dropped through a trap door, etc.; "The Party," for which Dan Rowan would invite viewers in to with the cast and guest stars and everyone would dance around as the orchestra played, stopping for a super-quick comedy bit; the "Joke-Wall," which had cast and guest stars popping out of windows or the floor to deliver one-liners; and "Laugh-In Looks at the News," which predates Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update segments. And then there would be the varied characters offered up from the cast, including Dan Rowan as General Bull Right, representing the military establishment in a satirical way; Arte Johnson as Wolfgang, a German soldier who would comment on what was going on, with expressions like, "Verrry interesting…but shtupid"; Henry Gibson as "The Poet," Goldie Hawn as the "dumb blonde," who would also be seen dancing with tattoos all over her body; and, of course, Lily Tomlin's various characters.

A show that embraced controversy.

Another controversial show on the air at roughly the same time was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which was a politically-charged variety show that saw show hosts Tom and Dick Smothers in constant battle with the CBS network that ultimately led to the show's cancellation. "I loved the Smothers Brothers and we talked a lot," says George. "The difference was that they had an agenda, a political position and philosophy that we didn't have. I wanted to be funny, and so we weren't trying to convince you. We weren't trying to sell you on one political philosophy or another. We were just commenting humorously on all sides of all issues, and we were also bringing people in who did not agree with the liberal point of view. We brought William Buckley in. We asked him to do the show and he said, 'Not only do I refuse to appear, I resent having been asked.' But he did come in and we put him with Lily Tomlin and he was a smash. We had Gore Vidal and Reverend Billy Graham, who said, 'The family who watches Laugh-In together, really needs to pray together.' We put that on the air. We asked John Wayne to do it and he said, 'I'm not gonna do that show, ever.' So we filmed him saying that and put that on the air. [Note: he also appeared in a sketch]. Eventually stars wanted to be guest stars, because it was the hip show to do.

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"And the appeal was all across the map," he adds. "The interesting thing is that kids, five, 10 or 12-years-old saw one show with bright colors, girls in bikinis or whatever. Then students saw another show that was political, making political statements they they either agreed or disagreed with, and then older people who loved the idea of Goldie in the bikini and all that. So it appealed to a mass audience. And it was really a utopian period, because there was nothing on the air that it could be compared to. It wasn't like anything. We'd do things like have someone say, 'We'll be right back,' and then you go to black and you come right back up again.' NBC said, 'But people will think you're going to commercial,' and I said, 'That's the idea.' We broke all the rules, and even made some new rules to break. The network got very nervous. They said, 'What is this?' and I said, 'It's the newest thing on the continent. They call it comedy verite. It's huge in Europe.' By the time they found out that nobody in Europe even heard about it, it was too late. The show didn't just happen. It exploded."

Enemy of the President.

Eventually, though, Laugh-In became a victim of its own success. One of the show's writers was a guy named Paul Keyes, who was a close friend of Richard Nixon and had even gotten the then-future president to appear briefly on the show to utter the catchphrase, "Sock it to me!", which many credit playing a role in his securing the presidency in 1968. But by the time the show was getting ready for its sixth season, its success had given it the power of significant political influence.


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"That political influence upset the Nixon Administration greatly," George notes. "After Nixon became president, we had one meeting — this has never run anyplace, and I probably shouldn't even tell you about it, but they came out to see me. A man by the name of Bob Kasmire was the top cop at NBC, and the show was just getting ready to go into the sixth season. He came out and he said that they had problems with the show. I said, 'Great, what are the problems?', and he said, 'From now on, we will not allow you to tape, let alone air, any political humor, any jokes about the Pentagon, or about religion and politics.' My agreement with NBC was that they would tape the show I produced and they would air it, but he said, 'It's not that you can't air it, we won't allow you to even tape it. That's the final decision. From now on, we just want a nice, funny show.' And at that point, I left. They did one more year and it all kind of fell apart.

"NBC applied the rules in year six that had been ignored in the first five," George says incredulously, "and that destroyed it. People didn't understand it. It sounded silly, it looked silly. We had bright colors and bikinis and balloons, but underneath that we were saying things about gay rights, political issues — many of which are back today, like an unpopular war and an unpopular president; the economy, nuclear energy, gasoline prices. But we were having fun with them."

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Laugh-In ended its run in 1973 with a total of 140 episodes, and all these years later, the show continues to live on. Season Four of the series has been released on DVD from Time/Life, which includes new interviews with cast members Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson. Additionally, the show currenly airs on the Decades network, and CBS This Morning will be doing a segment on the show's 50th Anniversary on May 20th, all of which showcases just how unique a series Rown & Martin's Laugh-In remains.

"I've been talking about a utopian existence that I don't know could exist today," George closes, "because, first of all, I don't know anybody that has the guts to do what we did. The show had a feeling of a free-for-all party. Today, if Lily Tomlin or Goldie Hawn walked on a stage, you'd have agents and managers and press agents descend on you like locusts. But at that point, we were giving them the freedom and the arena that was not available to them anywhere else. I'm very proud of what we did, and thrilled that people discover the show again in cycles. I only wish that the effect of Laugh-In would be to try new things. Not copy what we did, but try new things. There's such opportunity out there today with the Internet, new media and all of that stuff. I would like to see more innovation, and you know what? I truly believe it will come. It will come out of necessity, the same way that Laugh-In did, to fill a vacuum. Today we've pushed the boundaries of taste a bit too far, unfortunately, but now we can push the boundaries of creativity and do new things. I think that's what's going to happen, and I would be very proud if we had an effect on that."