It is a fairly safe bet that nobody knows more about the business of comedy in the mid-20th century than Kliph Nesteroff. No one has conducted more interviews. No one has researched the subject so deeply. A few years ago, Nesteroff wrote a fascinating, in-depth piece on the widely known but little discussed relationship between the show Laugh-In and the Nixon White House.
If you have any interest in politics or media, you should read the whole thing( including the end notes and comments), but if you're in a hurry, I've pulled a few sections that are particularly relevant to our recent discussion of the 2016 election.
The Comedy Writer That Helped Elect Richard M. Nixon
Laugh-In is commonly considered a reflection of the late sixties youth sensibility, but closer examination reveals a much different picture. It was, in essence, an establishment show, profiting from the anti-establishment sentiment running through America. Moderated by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Laugh-In was old in style, but draped in the popular fashion of the day. ... Whereas Tom Smothers found himself on Nixon's enemies list, Rowan and Martin found themselves on Nixon's guest list. ... In 1969 Dan Rowan said of Laugh-In's chief scribe [Paul Keyes], "President Nixon calls him four or five times a week and when he's in San Clemente, Paul's always there. He is very close to the administration on a personal and on a political basis." A generation of vociferous anti-Nixonites, enraptured by everything Laugh-In had to offer each Monday night, was none the wiser.
Laugh-In debuted on January 22, 1968. The show's format was conceived by George Schlatter and featured an odd melding of fast editing in the vintage Olsen and Johnson Hellzapoppin' milieu alongside a colorful "Summer of Love" design. The hosts were the comedy team Rowan and Martin, who had been busily plodding through show business with minor success .... "George Schlatter wanted Digby Wolfe for head writer," remembered Dick Martin. "We said, 'No, no, no, no. No way.' ... We brought in Paul Keyes from The Dean Martin Show ... we insisted that he be the head writer." And contrary to the earnest insistence of some, Laugh-In was innocuous as far as political satire was concerned.5 Richard Nixon was referenced, but the show never dared to take him to task for the aggressive foreign policy enraging the nation. Compared to other political television comedy of the decade like That Was the Week That Was or The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In possessed a toothless bite.
But the left-wing and right-wing jokes that Laugh-In showcased were very tame considering the upheaval in the country at the time. The Smothers Brothers appeared to be speaking truth to power whereas Laugh-In was simply speaking. Perhaps a contemporary analogy is the difference between Stephen Colbert's roasting of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner and the following year's performance by Rich Little.
The "sock it to me" bit in question was conceived for Laugh-In's 1968-69 season premiere, less than two months before election day. "He would do anything to get elected," says George Schlatter. "Paul Keyes convinced him that it was good for his image to appear in the midst of this kind of avalanche, this tsunami of youth and vitality." Erickson explained that Nixon "showed up surrounded by his staff, whom he consulted about everything. Asked to say [Laugh-In catchphrase] 'What's a bippy?' Nixon huddled with his entourage and decided against it - he didn't know what 'bippy' meant, and really didn't want to find out. Likewise vetoed was 'Good Night, Dick.' After much deliberation, 'Sock it to me?' was the one Dick Nixon finally approved." It aired September 16, 1968. Schlatter recalls the afternoon with trepidation and not just because it was difficult to direct the cardboard candidate.
Scholarship remains undecided about whether the "sock it to me" bit actually pushed Nixon over the top, but the argument is largely irrelevant. Nixon's "sock it to me" was simply the culmination of a year's worth of work orchestrated by Paul Keyes and his savvy team of media manipulators. ... Officially, Keyes was merely a joke contributor, but the reality was much more. The forty-four-year-old was Richard Nixon's new master of media control along with an impressive team of Marshall McLuhan adherents that included Raymond Price, Harry Treleaven and a twenty-eight-year-old producer from The Mike Douglas Show named Roger Ailes; the future wunderkind behind Fox News.
Raymond Price joined Nixon's media stalwarts after a long tenure as an editorial writer for The New York Herald Tribune. Price was hired as Nixon's speechwriter, but he was quickly consumed less with Nixon's words and more with his image. Price, too, was a devotee of Marshall McLuhan and wasted no time in applying his theories to the hopeless candidate. Speaking about the nation's aversion to the withered politico, Price said, "The response is to the image not the man. It's not what's there that counts, it's what's projected ... it's not what he projects but rather what the voter receives. It's not the man we have to change, but rather the received impression." Professor McLuhan would have awarded Price a gold star. Unable to cure an awkward man, the Price-Keyes strategy was to make sure Nixon acknowledged his maladroit persona.
Roger Ailes was hired by Nixon after the two hit it off during the politician's 1967 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, which Ailes had been producing. Ailes says his objective from day one was to put to rest the public's impression that Nixon was "a bore, a pain in the ass ... Let's face it, a lot people think Nixon is dull ... [That he] was forty-two years old the day he was born ... Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away. He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight." Marshall McLuhan's treatise Understanding Media was immediately circulated to everyone in the office with a key passage highlighted: "The success of any TV performer depends on his achieving a low-pressure style of presentation, although getting his act on the air may require much high-pressure organization."
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