Monday, September 17, 2007

September 16, 1968:

Sock it to Me?

In mid-September 1968, presidential candidate Richard Nixon appeared on television -- hardly a surprise, considering how important the medium had become to campaigns since the 1950s -- but in this case the appearance was distinctly novel. He was on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in, the intensely popular ten-gags-a-minute comedy show of the late 1960s. Nixon was one of the gags. No presidential contender had done anything like that before, not at least on purpose.

"Not long ago, I went to the Museum of Television and Radio, on West Fifty-second Street, to see episode No. 15 of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker in 2004. "When the episode originally aired, on September 16, 1968, Laugh-In was just beginning its first full season—it had d├ębuted eight months earlier, as a mid-season replacement—but was about to become the No. 1 show on television. The program begins with all the usual Laugh-In mayhem. 'It must be "Sock it to me" time,' a youthful Goldie Hawn announces, before hitting herself over the head with a plastic mallet. The mayor of Burbank gets pelted with Ping-Pong balls; Joanne Worley is doused with water; Ruth Buzzi is crushed by a stage set; and Judy Carne is pelted, doused, crushed, and then sprayed by a skunk. Still wet, she answers a phone, and on the other end (ostensibly) is Governor Nelson Rockefeller. 'Oh, no, I don’t think we could get Mr. Nixon to stand still for a "Sock it to me," ' she chirps, at which point the show cuts away to Richard Nixon.

"Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In lasts four seconds. At first, he is looking stage right; then he turns toward the camera. He widens his eyes in what seems to be an effort at feigned surprise but comes off looking more like mock dismay. 'Sock it to me?' he asks, drawing out the 'me?' in a way that suggests he has perhaps never heard the line before.

"Episode No. 15 was broadcast at the height of Nixon’s (ultimately successful) campaign against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, and was an immediate sensation. George Schlatter, the creator of Laugh-In, now runs a television production company in Los Angeles. He told me that Nixon had been extremely reluctant to be on the show; although the producers had repeatedly entreated him to appear, his campaign aides had even more insistently urged him not to. Eventually, the race brought Nixon out to Los Angeles. He gave a press conference, and Schlatter and one of Laugh-In’s writers, Paul Keyes, who happened to be a close friend of the former Vice-President’s, went over to watch it, bringing a TV camera with them.

“ 'While his advisers were telling him not to do it, Paul was telling him how much it would mean to his career,' Schlatter recalled. 'And we went in, and he said, "Sock it to me." It took about six takes, because it sounded angry: "Sock-it-to-me!" After that, we grabbed the tape and escaped before his advisers got to him.

“ 'Then, realizing what we had done—because he did come out looking like a nice guy—we pursued Humphrey all over the country, trying to get him to say, "I’ll sock it to you, Dick!" ' Schlatter went on. 'And Humphrey later said that not doing it may have cost him the election. We didn’t realize how effective it was going to be. But there were other factors in the election, too—I can’t take all the blame.' ”

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