At 94, George Schlatter is Still Socking It to You

The creator of Laugh-In talks about discovering Goldie Hawn, winging it with Jonathan Winters, and his most successful failure.

George Schlatter (right) with Jonathan Winters (Photo courtesy of George Schlatter)

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For readers of a certain age George Schlatter, though not a performer, has entertained millions of people. Over the course of his more than 60-year career, he transformed Las Vegas entertainment by creating the lounge act. He produced the top-rated Emmy-winning Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the era-defining, breakneck-paced comedy hour that launched the careers of Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. He created one of the seminal reality TV series, Real People. And he produced variety series and specials featuring such 20th century icons as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, Cher, Sammy Davis Jr., and Liza Minnelli.

But what he lives for is making people laugh. “Laughter is the Novocain of life,” he says. He truly believes it’s what the world needs, especially now.

Last year he published his supremely entertaining memoir, Still Laughing: A Life in Comedy. It’s just out in paperback, and for devotees of show business stories, it’s essential reading.

Still Laughing: A Life in Comedy (Unnamed Press)

The 94-year-old Schlatter’s sunny nature is undimmed. He and his wife of 65 years, Jolene Brand (one of Ernie Kovacs’ featured players; she was the woman in the bathtub in the recurring series of surreal blackouts, and was the costumed piano-playing member of the Nairobi Trio) were recently celebrated by the National Comedy Center with a theater named in their honor and a new YouTube channel, Clown Jewels, features some of his most famous (and infamous) projects.

“I’ve had a lot of fun,” he told The Saturday Evening Post in a phone interview. “I’m so pleased with how the book was received. It’s a feel-good book.”

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Donald Liebenson: Let’s start with Clown Jewels, which contains several of your specials that have not been seen since their original broadcast.

George Schlatter: Or that never aired….

DL: Like Burlesque Is Alive and Living in Burbank with Goldie Hawn.

GS: I was a big fan of burlesque because I worked a lot with Danny Thomas. I wanted to do a special that saluted burlesque because it was the root of a lot of comedy. Everyone loved the show when we taped it [in 1970], but the network wouldn’t air it. The humor was considered too risqué even then. Goldie performed a strip tease at the end. She was perfect. She still is perfect.

DL: Talk about when she came in to audition for Laugh-In. How did you find her?

GS: A woman who worked with us who started as a script girl and wound up producing Laugh-In, she said there was a girl she’d seen dance on a variety show and I that I had to see her. I said I wasn’t using dancers, and she said, “See this girl.” We brought Goldie into the office and just talked. She was just charming. We gave her an introduction to do and she was nervous and she screwed it up. The director interrupted her and asked her to do it again, and I said, “Never ever interrupt this woman again.” When she broke up, the world laughed.

DL: Lily Tomlin wrote the foreword for your book. Laugh-In was her big break. What did you see in her that others didn’t?

GS: Lily was leaving L.A. to go back to New York. She came to see me as kind of a last stop. She started doing these wonderful characters and I put her on the show. That’s where she introduced Ernestine the phone operator. Two days after we taped the show, people were stopping her in the hallways and imitating Ernestine; “One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingies.” She’s a brilliant actress.

DL: A gem on the Clown Jewels platform is Jonathan Winters: A Wild Winter Night (1964) with Art Carney.

GS: This was one of my favorite ventures. I loved Jonathan. But he only did guest shots on other shows. We sold this show. We had a reading on Nov. 22, 1963, the day that President Kennedy was shot, and everyone went off to a different saloon. The next time we got together was a week later for the taping with Jonathan and Art Carney. We had nothing. I said to bring me every kind of prop in the building, and Jonathan and Art just played. I told the network it was a new thing, comedy verité.

Uploaded to YouTube by Clown Jewels

DL: There is also an episode of the American Comedy Awards, which you created and ran for more than a decade.

GS: There were awards for every other field, and they would get a comic to emcee the ceremonies. There was nothing to salute the comics. At that point, I was hot and could sell anything. I was very proud of that show. People need to laugh. Nobody throws a punch when they’re laughing.

George Schlatter (second from left) at The American Comedy Awards with Mike Nichols, Diane Sawyer, and Jack Nicholson (Photo courtesy of George Schlatter)

DL: Comedy geeks will especially be interested in the never-aired episodes of Turn-On, whose rise and instant fall is one of the best stories in the book. It sounds like a joke that it was cancelled during the first episode.

GS: It’s one of my most successful failures. Laugh-In was such a success, and ABC, which was last in the ratings, was willing to try anything. They committed to 13 episodes. There was enormous fanfare and promotion. But there was a station in Cleveland, and the guy who ran it hated the show because it was going to replace Peyton Place. He started calling stations from New York to Los Angeles, and one by one, they cancelled Turn-On. By the time it aired in L.A., it was done.

DL: Not quite sure how I feel about this, but you were the godfather of reality TV with Real People.

GS: That was about celebrating silly, wonderful, warm, heroic, unsung people. They were more interesting to me than the stars.

DL: You’ve worked with iconic entertainers, everyone from Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Liza Minnelli, and too many more to name. They say you should never meet your heroes, but is there someone who surprised you in a good way?

GS: John Wayne. When we were doing Laugh-In, there wasn’t a lot of money for guest stars. We would go out into the hall and grab people when they left The Tonight Show. That’s how we got John Wayne. He said, “I’m not going to do that show with all those crazy people.” We put that on the air.

DL: You delivered Frank Sinatra’s eulogy. There are great stories in the book about your friendship. How does someone become friends with Frank Sinatra?

GS: If you could make him laugh, you were in.

DL: Your book came out in hardcover last year. What do you say to people who waited for this paperback version, maybe to save a few bucks?

GS: Buy two of them.

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  1. My folks and I used to love Laugh-In when I was a kid. And I caught the reruns a few years ago—a lot of it is still very funny and even topical! (Some things don’t change!) I had no Idea Schlatter had done the Comedy Awards (or that he was still around!) Thanks, and LOL, George!

  2. I’m happy to read this. I’ve been aware of him since Laugh – In days, but didn’t know that he himself was funny. His last line was terrific.

    And I’m so glad to have learned about the YouTube channel. Of course, I subscribed instantly.

  3. Another fantastic article Don! Before commenting today, I had to re-read the vintage ‘Laugh-In’ Post article first. One of my favorite issues of late ’68 waiting to be enjoyed yet again! I really love George Schlatter, and admire him for having an eye for talent like Goldie Hawn, and showcasing her in the best light utilizing her natural talents. Jo Anne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Judy Carne also? Of course! The Rowan & Martin pairing? All INCREDIBLE!

    I’ve long felt ‘Laugh-In’ was the later mid-20th century’s television revival of vaudeville. Admittedly, kind of on steroids, but so was American life compared with the earlier sections. Burns and Allen’s ’50s sitcom, ‘Green Acres’ in the ’60s definitely had strong roots in the genre.

    Take a little of ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World’ editing aspects of ‘The Monkees’ then add the genius of George Schlatter, and you’ve got one the THE best shows of its era, and ever. You weren’t afraid to experiment; put people on the show that might not have “belonged” on paper, but DID when you just went ahead and did it!

    The greatest shows were produced by The Greatest Generation, such as yourself, Sherwood Schwartz, Carl Reiner just to name a few. Dan Curtis also with ‘Dark Shadows’ (same Post issue) who also “flew by the seat of his pants” to create an experimental soap opera horror show, also only possible in the Soaring ’60s. When new technology was needed to create the look of an acid trip even if it was 1897, by God he did it. Put it on the air, indeed.

    I love the comedy link here featuring Art Carney and Jonathan Winters, as well as the ‘Turn On’ link with your own ‘as needed’ effects! Turn on, tune in, turn your eyes around, right? I think so, and am ordering ‘Still Laughing’ tonight. Don, I’m looking forward to your next feature here as always.


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