George Schlatter

Interview: George Schlatter Reflects On A Legendary Career

Interviewed by Andrew Buss

George Schlatter

There’s few things that George Schlatter hasn’t done in show business. There’s also few people whom George Schlatter hadn’t worked with. When asked to name a specific person he wishes he could’ve worked with, there’s just one person that comes to mind. The Pope. And not that he didn’t try, he assures me.

George Schlatter is perhaps best known for creating Laugh-In. The truth is, though, that his reach goes far beyond the hit sketch series that ran from 1968 until 1973. He has been cited as being the “father of reality TV” with his 1979 series Real People. He also created The Comedy Awards that finally allowed comedians to be part of the awards circuit. Not to mention, he worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Milton Berle to Redd Foxx to Judy Garland and beyond. George Schlatter has a new book out, Still Laughing.

The book is aptly named, because when you talk to Schlatter, you discover just how important comedy is to him to this day, even at 93 years-old. The importance of comedy - and the importance of laughter - makes up a good chunk of our interview. It becomes apparent that comedy will always be close to his heart. It’s refreshing to know that the man who has brought so much joy and laughter to others still takes so much joy in laughing himself.

To read his new book is to essentially sit at his feet and listen to him tell stories. Because boy, does he have the stories. The book is full of just about every single anecdote you can imagine, from every star he worked with to every stupid network note he ever got. If you want to have insight into the world of show business past, this book will take you back to that place.

During our phone chat, the stories couldn’t stop pouring out of George Schlatter. So much so that the normal interview format would never do them justice. So perhaps it’s best if we just let the stories speak for themselves.

On Why It Took So Long To Write a Memoir

I really don’t know. Life has been pretty full. It took me a long time. I finally just sat down and, for a week, just talked into a tape recorder. And I went back through as memories as there are in the book. They then reduced it to readable length. I remembered everything. I guess some of it I just resisted telling.

I am now - I hate to say it - but 93 years old, and it’s been a long and bumpy 93 years. So I describe it as my long and suspicious career. Because there’s been a lot of ups and downs and over and outs. And that’s when I decided to sit down and tell all the stories that I can remember.

The book does bounce around a bit, doesn’t it? It does kind of reflect my minimal attention span. (Laughs). I was born in an avalanche, so the book kind of reflects my minimal attention span. And I had a good time doing it, you know?

On Battling the Censors

I was the number one enemy. I had the number one show, so it attracted a lot of attention both from the audience and from the network censors. The tough part is everything in the book is true. I did have long and painful meetings with the censors. 

I had my own set of censors. They would come and just sit and watch. They would read the scripts and often misunderstand it and censor out the wrong things. And I got by with a lot of it because I could have Goldie Hawn, who was just the most adorable child in the world. Anything she said was okay because they didn’t understand it.

It was an adventure. It was more than a television show. It was an adventure happening when nobody else was saying anything. Tommy Smothers was saying a lot of things. But his approach to the network was to fight them and not give them the tapes. While I was fighting one thing, I was winning something else. So I really appreciated Tommy Smothers. They were having so much trouble with Tommy, they kind of overlooked a lot of stuff with us.

On Laugh-In’s Success

We had a 50 share. Today you are lucky to get a three or a four or a five. A 50 share meant that half of the country was watching what we were doing. Half of them understood it, and the other half of them just loved the energy and the colors and the pretty people.

There was a barrage of very attractive, very articulate young people saying things that the network really, really didn’t understand at first. Because nobody else was saying things like that. So we got by with a lot.

So much of the show was an accident. And my own adolescent immature approach to problems carried us through a lot of bumpy moments.

On Guest Stars

When we started the show, the only reason they bought it is because it was so cheap. We couldn’t afford guest stars. So I would stop people in the halls and ask them to say things. John Wayne said “I am not going to do that show. I don’t like that show.” By the time he said that, we put him on the air.

We had Richard Nixon saying "Sock it to Me.” The world exploded. It was a presidential candidate appearing on a comedy show. They weren’t going to air that but unfortunately, by the time they saw it, it had already been on the air. We were blamed for getting him elected, because the idea of a presidential candidate appearing on a comedy show just never occurred to anyone. I have had to live with that.

On if It Would Work Today

If we came on today, with some thing that was that outrageous, I think it would work again. It’s just whether or not I have the energy to do that again. Because we were taping all night and editing all night. When you have that kind of success, and you are very young and don’t need much sleep, the arrogance and humor got me through.

On Frank Sinatra

My relationship with Frank Sinatra was something I cherished. I remember the first day I met him when he looked at me and said “I have ties older than this guy.”

Sinatra figured in my career over a long period of time up to, and including, when his wife asked me to do a eulogy at his funeral. I said “Barbra please, that’s not what I do.” She said "You have to do it.” I said “As long as I don’t have to follow Gregory Peck, OK.” Sure enough, Gregory Peck did his eulogy and then the bishop introduced me. Well, I didn’t know what to say, so I said “Thank you, your honor.“ I called a bishop your honor. Jolene [George’s wife] was mortified. But the audience appreciated it.

On the National Comedy Center

I made a donation. They called and said “Can we have a couple of clips from Laugh-In?” I said “Yeah.” They said “This is great, do you have anything else?” And I said “Lady, I have a warehouse full of else.” So I started sending them clips and tapes, and so it became a major collection in Jamestown. So at the end of the month we’re going to go and celebrate it.

It’s the only place in the world that’s devoted entirely to celebrating stand-up comedians. The Emmys, the Oscars, the Grammys, comedians host the show but then they forget about them. The collection in Jamestown is totally dedicated to celebrating the people who made us laugh. And that’s why we’re gonna be there for this ribbon cutting.

On The Importance of Laughter

It’s important that we laugh. Babies laugh. We don’t know why. But the most intelligent children are laughing all the time. We don’t know what they’re laughing at. We find out later they were laughing at us. But laughter is a major part of our security. We can overcome pain, disappointment, sadness. The ability to laugh is what pulls us through a lot. As Richard Nixon proved.

Comedians are a major part of our survival. When we did The Comedy Awards, it was long overdue that we’d devote three hours to people who make us laugh, because we must laugh in order to survive. We need to see the humor in what’s around us. And that was the reason for The Comedy Awards. And that’s the reason it was so well received. People wanted to celebrate those people who devote their life and profession to making us laugh.

We need the comedians. We should stop maybe electing them, but we do need the comedians. That’s our pressure valve.

On His Longevity

I’ve been able to laugh my way through. Up to and including now. And I’m not ready to check out yet. 93 years old, I have no right to be doing this. That’s longer than anybody I know. Norman Lear and Mel Brooks and that’s about it. We’re all that’s left of that golden time of comedy. Norman Lear introduced it in sitcoms, we introduced it in stand-up.

I remember when Frank Sinatra saw Robin Williams, he was absolutely stunned. And that’s part of what made it work. We need more of that. And hopefully, while I have another few years to go, I’m going to continue to find ways and excuses to make people laugh.

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