"Nixon said ... that appearing on Laugh-In is what got him elected - and I believe that. And I've had to live with that." - George Schlatter, Creator of Laugh-In
"He is the president of every place in this country which does not have a bookstore." - Murray Kempton, Journalist and Pulitzer Prize Recipient
"While basically a dullard, [Paul] Keyes nonetheless is an interesting cat." - Gary Deeb, TV Critic
"The one thing I try to avoid is making audiences think." - Dan Rowan, Host of Laugh-In
Two mainstream television programs in the late nineteen sixties were said to represent the counterculture sensibility more so than any other: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Laugh-In. These two comedy-variety shows, we are often told, appealed to the same acid-tripping, free-love, anti-war demographic. Today they are often considered two sides of the same coin, but behind the scenes they differed in major ways.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour resulted in Tom Smothers, its main creative force, being the first name to grace the Nixon enemies list. The comedy team had once been a trusted mainstream act, popular with conservative America in the years leading up to their own nineteen sixties variety show. But eventually The Smothers Brothers became a petulant aggravation for the jingoists in Washington. With his weekly variety program in place, Tom Smothers experienced a political transformation that mirrored the very paradigm shift taking place across America. An enormous sector of the population started questioning the methods and motives of their war mongering leaders just as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became a major hit. CBS felt increasingly pressured to squelch the subtle anti-authoritarian inferences Tom Smothers contributed to each episode and guest stars such as Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger had their anti-war turns carved up by the network. The resulting cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was blamed on a "blasphemous" piece of satire by comedian David Steinberg, but the Nixon White House and their allies had been searching for an excuse to pull the plug on Tom Smothers for a while. It appears that one of the people prodding the President to do so was the most unlikely of confidants: the head writer of Laugh-In.
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. It effectively garnered a genuine hippie aesthetic, but any actual connection to the counterculture was mostly smoke and mirrors. The bulk of Laugh-In consisted of eye-catching vaudeville bits that mostly ignored the war, the riots and the protest. It embraced the look and sound of the hippies and had no problem making references to getting high, but generally glossed over political issues. Whereas Tom Smothers found himself on Nixon's enemies list, Rowan and Martin found themselves on Nixon's guest list. Historian Hal Erickson assessed, "Compared to the approach of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In treaded very, very lightly, especially when commenting upon America's untenable position in Vietnam." Laugh-In creator George Schlatter explains that his show "had a real cross section of writers. Paul was seriously right-wing ... He was so far right he did cartwheels ... Paul Keyes ... Nixon's joke writer." In 1969 Dan Rowan said of Laugh-In's chief scribe, "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.
Paul Keyes was a high school student in Dorchester, Massachusetts when crooner Rudy Vallee came to town. Vallee, one time darling of early thirties Victrolas, was by 1942 riding his descending star to a world of B-movies, eclipsed by emerging vocal heavyweights Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. However, his anachronistic appearance was enough to stir something deep within Paul Keyes. It was this humble concert in Keyes' hometown that instigated his lifelong lust for show business and, perhaps, a kinship with major celebrities that were increasingly out of favor. Done with high school, Keyes very much wanted to get into radio. He found work as a junior announcer at a New England station, but was fired after just one week due to a stumbling inability to correctly pronounce "psoriasis." With the nation stuck in the grip of World War Two, he was soon drafted and placed in Utah where he handled Air Force public relations. Part of his gig involved writing scripts for the radio propaganda wing of the American Forces Network. It was this combination of show business and perception-tuning that became his life-long calling, although no one realized it at the time, least of all Paul Keyes. At wars end he worked on a one-off radio special titled The True Glory of Thanksgiving syndicated for "Greek War Relief." Serendipitously, the Thanksgiving pablum was hosted by Rudy Vallee, and featured a patriotic fervor that would eventually be a Keyes trademark.
The notorious Hearst media empire was known for yellow journalism or "sensationalized stories of dubious veracity" as Wikipedia has poetically defined it. William Randolph Hearst was one of the first media moguls to have his political prism distort newspaper content without shame. When the real-life Charles Foster Kane ventured beyond the world of publishing, his approach did not vary. During the depression era, the Hearst dominion expanded to radio. Front Page Drama was a syndicated radio show "based on a story that can be found in the fascinating pages of next Sunday's issue of the American Weekly, the educational and entertaining magazine distributed with every Hearst Sunday newspaper from coast to coast." With his experience providing radio content for the military, Paul Keyes nailed a job writing marginal, fifteen-minute installments of the long-running Front Page Drama.
In 1954 the National Broadcasting Company created a course dubbed The NBC Writers Development Program.1 It had a mandate of culling young talent for a career in the network stable. The dean of the training course was a veteran of the progressive theater named Tad Danielewski. Danielewski is forgotten today, but it was he who first unearthed the potential of a young, unknown Rod Serling. His keen nose for talent was further cemented when two of the budding nobodies recruited for the course were thirty-year-old Paul Keyes and a shy twenty-year-old kid named Woody Allen. The idea was to have the young men attend television writing classes by day and enjoy work studies in the evenings, shadowing established NBC writers on a network show. Allen was placed under the tutelage of Danny Simon at The Colgate Comedy Hour, while Keyes spent his time at Omnibus, Alistair Cooke's lauded showcase of erudite vaudeville.2
Keyes was retained as a staff writer by NBC and assigned to the new 1957 version of The Tonight Show, hosted by failed Hollywood journeyman Jack Paar. It was this unassuming gig that would bring Paul Keyes into the company of Richard Nixon and, as a result, help shape the course of American history. As the fifties came to a close, Keyes was merely a gag writer among many. He had helped craft, one could even say invent, Paar's opening monologues; a chat program convention created for Paar that continues to this day on most late night talk shows. During this period Keyes was busy donating dull projects to society like the moronic paperback Putting on the Dogs, a compendium of sixty dog photos featuring "humorous captions." Regardless, Keyes was nothing if not a tireless worker, and his persistence as a scribe resulted in his promotion to Paar's head writer by 1960. When Jack Paar had his much publicized on-air walk out in February of that year, Keyes resigned in solidarity - and when Paar returned a month later, so did Keyes. Had Keyes continued writing words for Kodachromed canines instead... Richard Nixon may never have been President of the United States.
The election year of 1960 was the first campaign in which television had an overwhelming, formidable impact. Vice President Nixon was already well known thanks to eight years of colorful anti-Communist rhetoric. He now felt that it was his turn to assume the presidency. But as has been well documented, Nixon underestimated the ability of television to magnify his typically awkward nature. August 25, 1960, Richard Nixon's fumbling personality would sit beside Jack Paar for a rare, non-news program interview. Jack Paar introduced his head writer to Nixon as "an Irish Catholic from Boston who would vote against JFK." The highly anticipated episode was taped in Washington and, in most markets, aired at midnight "after station identification."
The Washington reaction to the televised performance of Richard Nixon and Jack Paar was expressed in one word: Revolting ... Some remarks of revulsion came from those who witnessed the live performance in the studio building four hours before the tape was run on the air. Indeed, after the taping, Richard Nixon himself emerged from the studio to face reporters to sort of apologize for his presence on this commercial show ... Reporters, strong-armed out of the studio proper because they did not represent "a typical audience," were allowed, however, to watch the monitors outside. They were able to hear the cracks made by Paar during the commercial periods - remarks the national audience did not hear. One outside viewer winced when Paar leaned over to the Vice President and cooed: "You're playing your part very well."
- Ed Koterba, Pennsylvania Reading Eagle, August 27, 19603
It has been said time and again that Richard Nixon lost his 1960 presidential bid to John F. Kennedy after the country watched the two participate in the nation's first televised debate. The oft-told account argues that the sweaty and nervous looking Nixon, having refused the services of a make-up man prior to broadcast, lost the television debate based on his shifty looks alone. It is said that those listening over the radio felt that Nixon won effortlessly. Joe McGinniss was astute with his conclusion that although "they would say it was makeup and lighting ... Nixon's problem went deeper than that. His problem was himself. Not what he said but the man he was. The camera portrayed him clearly. America took its Richard Nixon straight and did not like the taste." Legendary scholar-philosopher Marshall McLuhan, after having watched the Kennedy-Nixon debate, concluded that Nixon came across like "the railway lawyer who signs leases that are not in the best interests of the folks in the little town."
Two years later Paul Keyes had graduated from his status as Paar's head writer to his core producer. With the new position he assumed responsibility for the show's tenor, atmosphere and temperament. Richard Nixon was booked for an appearance on what was now called The Jack Paar Program. It was during this showcase that Keyes and Nixon formed an unyielding bond. Humiliated by his defeat two years earlier, Nixon was determined not to fall victim to the television magnifying glass ever again. He was open to any suggestion on how to thaw his icy persona and it was likely Keyes who recommended Nixon demonstrate his ability on piano for the spot. The revolutionary text Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan featured the professor's take on the appearance:
On the Jack Paar show for March 8, 1963, Richard Nixon was Paared down and remade into a suitable TV image. It turns out that Mr. Nixon is both a pianist and a composer. With sure tact for the character of the TV medium, Jack Paar brought out this "pianoforte" side of Mr. Nixon with excellent effect. Instead of the slick, glib, legal Nixon, we saw the doggedly creative and modest performer. A few timely touches like this would have quite altered the result of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign. TV is a medium that rejects the sharp personality and favors the presentation of processes rather than of products.
Nixon felt painfully insecure after his failed bid for the presidency. To show that he was still a political player, he aggressively jumped into the battle for Governor of California. Keyes took a leave of absence from Paar to help Nixon groom his television persona. Unfortunately, still a novice on this front, Keyes was unable to counteract a series of controversies that dogged America's former VP at every whistle stop. He was accused of accepting a clandestine two hundred thousand dollars from Howard Hughes. He was confronted daily with the accusation that he cared little for California and merely wanted the governorship to use as "a stepping stone to the White House." After months of relentless attacks against him, a rattled Nixon shared lunch with Keyes. "He met my father at his law office for a lunch of carry-out Chinese food," remembered Nixon's daughter Julie. "Paul [was astonished] when his friend told him that he was so certain he would lose the election that, as soon as lunch was over, he was going home to prepare [for defeat]." Nixon certainly produced something memorable. The next day, as the disappointing results of his fight came in, he delivered an attack on the media and his now-infamous proclamation that "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Keyes couldn't understand the outcome. He felt that Richard Nixon had endless charm and charisma. But that was off-camera. Paul Keyes thought there must to be a way to manufacture a Nixon political triumph. Over the next several years, while working as head writer on The Dean Martin Show, Keyes would devour everything that Professor McLuhan had ever composed. While co-workers were focused on conceiving a dynamite "drunk joke" to put in Dean Martin's mouth, their head writer was distracted, working diligently on a plan to make Richard Milhous Nixon the President of the United States.
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.4 The duo was considered increasingly archaic by the youth movement; an outdated expression of Rat Pack tuxedo cool that embraced scotch over marijuana, sexism rather than liberation. Regardless, the blinding fast edits of girls with flowers painted on their bodies was enough to convince many undiscerning young hippie kids that this was the show for them. "George Schlatter wanted Digby Wolfe for head writer," remembered Dick Martin. "We said, 'No, no, no, no. No way.' We knew him. We once hired him for a hundred dollars a week to write political humor for us, for nightclubs, but we couldn't use any of it. Because it wasn't funny. Digby Wolfe was out right away ... 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. Television historian Hal Erickson claims that the show was home to sharp satire, but the analogy he uses moots his point: "[A Laugh-In sketch about] the US Post Office on the November 18 program was every bit as biting and relevant as anything seen in the 1990s on Leno." If that is the gauge we are using to measure satire, well...
George Schlatter felt that Paul Keyes' position as head writer was sometimes used to keep them from injecting anything that might have been considered too anti-establishment. "Paul was there [in the writer's room] being very careful we didn't go too far [to the left]. He wrote pretty good jokes, [but] they were all pretty much right-wing jokes, which is not the best well to go through." Dick Martin felt that the distribution of politically oriented humor was even-handed. "Paul Keyes was very insistent that an equal number of left-leaning jokes go in the scripts. We had Allan Manings and a couple of guys on the staff who were really liberal.6 So, their stuff got in." 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. NPR personality David Bianculli underscores the asymmetry, concluding that, "The Smothers Brothers made fun of Richard Nixon as he ran for president. Laugh-In never did. In fact, the biggest difference between the two shows ... where Comedy Hour used Nixon as a punch line, Laugh-In let Nixon deliver the punch line ... The impact of that five-second appearance is impossible to gauge: on one of the most popular TV shows in the nation, Nixon managed, in a single sentence, to convey more of a good-sport persona, and a sense of humor, than during most of the rest of his campaign." Several feel it was the moment that altered the 1968 election in Richard Nixon's favor. Anyone that feels it wasn't calculated to do so is sorely mistaken. "Nobody would have ever been able to get Nixon to come on the show and say sock it to me," said Dick Martin, "other than Paul Keyes."
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. "It took six takes before Nixon was able to deliver the line without sounding angry or offended. People say that we were responsible for electing Richard Nixon. It was so close - and by showing him in that [fashion] with that audience, it may have elected him. I've had to live with that for thirty-eight fucking years." Nixon received the standard fee routinely doled out to guests of the show, a pleasant two hundred and ten dollars, which was deposited directly into his campaign coffers. "Lena Horne once kicked me in the shin," remembered Dick Martin. "[She] said, 'You son of a bitch, you elected that bastard!' But we also offered the same thing to Hubert Humphrey a week later ... his adviser said no.7 He said to Humphrey - and I heard him say this, 'They'll end up throwing water on you.' Like we're gonna throw water on a fucking presidential candidate. Absurd. That dumb son of a bitch!"
A commercial break on that very episode featured a "Nixon for President" campaign spot. The purchase of that advertisement in a top-rated time slot, shortly after the impressionable cameo, was shrewd. 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. Starting eight months earlier, Keyes was placed on the Nixon payroll. He did, indeed, contribute to the campaign what many in the media and at Laugh-In believed was his only purpose: writing light jokes for Nixon to deliver. A journalist on the campaign trail wrote of the winning approach. "His jokes are less forced, his delivery is better and, most importantly, he has learned the value of poking fun at his own foibles." But Keyes was far more ingrained in the Nixon machine than any of his Hollywood contemporaries ever realized. Perhaps Keyes wanted it that way. Such downplaying "was common" writes Joe McGinniss. "Charley Garment, Gene Jones, Paul Keyes from Laugh-In, all these people said they wanted to help as long as their names weren't involved." While soliciting celebrity support, Lawrence Welk himself said he'd be glad to support Richard Nixon for president... as long as his name wasn't used. Keyes was responsible for a wide variance of deceptive political trickery. Such methods have long since been the norm in politics, and arguably always have been, but Keyes was one of the first to employ television for the purpose. 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.
Frank Shakespeare was a former CBS television executive. The New York Times profiled the collection of wizards behind the curtain and said of Shakespeare "although he had spent eighteen years at CBS, no one he had worked with there could recall a single anecdote about him." The button-down Shakespeare believed in Nixon and he believed that the world of network television was biased against him. Shakespeare was responsible for bringing in former documentary newsman Eugene S. Jones and bohemian avant-gardest Jim Sage, experts in photography and cinéma vérité, to stage innovative Nixon for President television ads. Neither were Nixon men, but sustenance persuaded them to accept the job. They conceived an effective commercial campaign that utilized still life photography, sharp editing and the words of Richard Nixon himself. The rapid-fire results were considered groundbreaking at the time. "We're moving into a period," said Sage, "where a man is going to be merchandised on television more and more. It upsets you and me, maybe, but we're not typical Americans. The public sits at home and watches Gunsmoke and when they're fed this pap about Nixon they think they're getting something worthwhile." Shakespeare was sure to guard his boss from the beatniks-for-hire. Nixon wouldn't have trusted them. Shakespeare remembered that Nixon would "say [to me] in private - those liberal bastards are fucking me again."
Harry Treleaven was a character straight out of Mad Men. Once described as "a TV-obsessed nerd who perennially bored people" he was working from his Fifth Avenue office at the advertising agency of Fuller, Smith and Ross when he joined the makeover operation. The man was an unabashed workhorse. Treleaven, at age thirty-two, had been the youngest vice president in the history of the J. Walter Thompson agency. Time magazine said "he did not flee Madison Avenue. He mastered it." Treleaven once reflected, "I think I could really have become a drunk. If I only had the time. I love to drink, but I'm always too busy." He took what he gleaned from soap hocking and applied it to the world of politics. His first gig was "rewiring the image of George Herbert Walker Bush, the new congressman from Houston" to laudatory success. Treleaven explained his philosophy. "I handle a campaign as one would an account. The discipline is the same." Joe McGinniss said that Treleaven felt "issues would not have to be involved in the campaign. There was no issue when it came to selling Ford automobiles; there were only the product, the competition and the advertising. He saw no reason why politics should be any different."
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."
Nixon was thrilled with this new group of enthusiastic, young men. "We're going to build this whole campaign around television," he said. "You fellows just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it." Raymond Price and Harry Treleaven. Roger Ailes and Paul Keyes. Frank Shakespeare and a pair of desperate photographers. With Richard M. Nixon as their much-maligned template, they had a perfect target on which to test Marshall McLuhan's intoxicating new theories. Their work was cut out for them. The fact that Nixon was an unabashed square, so very uncomfortable in his own skin, meant that he was often his own worst enemy. For Keyes, the most important thing of all was protecting Richard Nixon from himself. During the taping of a campaign commercial in Los Angeles, Nixon was stopped by a crewmember that wished him luck. They had met once before, the man explained, backstage at The Merv Griffin Show. Attempting to make small talk, Nixon asked, "Oh, say, is that funny woman still on [the show]?" Joe McGinniss captured the uncomfortable moment in his classic book The Selling of the President 1968.
The man from the show did not know what funny woman Richard Nixon meant.
"You know. The one with the funny voice."
The man gave a little shake of his head. He did not know what to say. Richard Nixon was the only one smiling. Everyone else was starting to get embarrassed.
"You know," Nixon persisted. "That funny lady."
The man looked past Richard Nixon, to the men who were with him. For help.
Paul Keyes stepped forward. From the Laugh-In show. He was a big man with gray hair and rimless glasses. The kind of Republican who thought John Wayne was good for the party.
"Oh, you mean Tiny Tim," Paul Keyes said to Richard Nixon. And while everyone was laughing - Nixon too - Paul Keyes motioned to the man at the door and the door was opened wider and Richard Nixon walked through and outside to where the cars were waiting.
Presenting Nixon on television was complex. Nothing could be left to chance and Roger Ailes focused on incredible minutiae. After viewing a staged "town hall" session produced for a regional television audience, Ailes prepared a critique for the team to look over. He would note that "we are still working on lightening up his eyes a bit ... I may try slightly whiter makeup on upper eyelids. I may lower the riser he stands on a couple of inches ... Whenever he is going to tape a show, the studio air conditioning should be turned up full at least four hours prior to the broadcast ... An effort should be made to keep him in the sun occasionally to maintain a fairly constant level of healthy tan ... When film is not available it might be good to have David Douglas Duncan shoot a series of interesting stills which could be put on film and synchronized to a Connie Francis8 record." Ailes was occasionally impatient when the group had to deal with regional television crews that clearly had yet to hear about McLuhan. "I'm going to fire this director," he fumed during preparations for another televised event, this one in Philadelphia. "Look at this. Look at the positioning of these cameras ... I don't care! I don't want to hear that shit ... I've told him fifty times I want close-ups. Close-ups! This is a visual medium. I want to see faces. I want to see pores. That's what people are. That's what television is ... I don't give a fuck about the seats. I'll give up thirty seats to get a tight shot ... I'm going to fire the son of a bitch right after the show."
October 1968, Nixon appeared on a public affairs program that would, hopefully, demonstrate his ability to act cool under fire; Dick Nixon would not crack under the pressure of random, unfiltered questions. Queries were to be phoned in from the viewing audience. That's what the media was told. Roger Ailes would explain, "What's going to happen is all of the questions are going to come through the operators over there, and then runners will bring them down to the producer's table ... from there they'll go to a screening room where the Nixon staff will tear them up and write their own." A dialogue that Ailes had about the presentation with Jack Rourke, an Ailes assistant and audience warm-up man at live events, demonstrates that Paul Keyes was far more than a gag writer.
"I understand Paul Keyes has been sitting up for two days writing questions," Roger Ailes said.
"Well not quite," Jack Rourke said. He seemed a little embarrassed.
"What is going to happen?"
"It's sort of semiforgery, isn't it?" Ailes said. "Keyes has a bunch of questions Nixon wants to answer. He's written them in advance to make sure they're properly worded. When someone calls in with something similar, they'll use Keyes' question and attribute it to the person who called. Isn't that it?"
"More or less," Jack Rourke said.
Nixon had been pleased with his image-makers, but he was starting to exhibit signs of exhaustion from the rigorous taping schedule. His old guard, men that had helped him lose in previous campaigns, took advantage of Nixon's weakening stamina, and tried to wrangle control from the young McLuhan advocates. They tried to convince him he had made a mistake. Harry Treleaven observed John Mitchell and R.W. Haldeman hiring senior citizens that had worked for Nixon in the fifties. "They're really out of the woodwork. In March ... nobody cared," he noted. "Now we have a screening and John Mitchell shows up with six guys I don't even know." Roger Ailes saw some of his authority at Nixon television presentations torn away by Frank Shakespeare. Ailes was furious. "What does he know about directing? At CBS, for Christ's sakes, he was a salesman. If he tries it ... I swear to God I'll turn around right in the middle of the show and take the goddamned earphones off and he can direct the son of a bitch himself." Paul Keyes was witnessing two simultaneous power struggles: one in the Nixon camp - the other in "Beautiful Downtown Burbank."
The immersion of Keyes in Richard Nixon's world was causing tension in the Laugh-In writer's room. Chris Bearde was a sharp satirical writer whose first major Hollywood gig was conceiving gags for Laugh-In. "There were two camps on Laugh-In," says Bearde. "There was the Paul Keyes camp, which was sort of the Republican camp. The thing about Paul [was] he was a very human guy. He wasn't an automatic guy. I think he was pretty religious as well, but he was a very charming and warm guy and Nixon was not. That's why this was a good combination [for] Nixon ... Dan Rowan was a Republican ... and there was a guy named Hugh Wedlock." Bearde got on well with both the right-wing and left-wing elements behind the scenes at Laugh-In, but it seems he was the exception. Because of this, he often had to play the role of partial mediator. "One side used to come to me and say, 'You know what they're doing? I'll tell you what they're doing, Chris.' And the other side would say, 'Well you know what they're doing?' And blah blah blah." Bearde was being courted to join the staff of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but neither Democrat George Schlatter, nor Republican Paul Keyes wanted him to leave. "George said to me, 'I'm not letting you out of your contract ... You can't leave. You're the one that's holding this together, because you're the only one that talks to both sides.' And then I go to Paul Keyes and he says, 'Please don't leave because you're the guy that's between the two sides. If something happens with you, we won't be speaking to each other in the next year!" Bearde stayed one more season before leaving to join The Andy Williams Show. Bearde says the consequence of his move played out exactly as Schlatter and Keyes had predicted. "For two years [the opposing Laugh-In writers] didn't speak to each other. They sent memos across the studio! Other writers would call me up and say, 'Chris, my God, these people are not talking to each other.' Armageddon happened in there because the left went left and the right went right and the center disa-fucking-ppeared."
Paul Keyes' final assignment of the campaign season was persuading the comedy giant Jackie Gleason to endorse Richard Nixon on camera. Paul Keyes wrote a script for Gleason to recite in the pre-taped segment. The commercial aired prior to a last-ditch Nixon campaign special. Election night was November 5, 1968. Richard Nixon sat in a hotel room watching the returns on television and the head writer of Laugh-In sat intently beside him. Keyes was anxious to see if the many methods he had helped devise would be successful in the end. When victory seemed increasingly apparent, Keyes stood up and extended his hand. "Congratulations... Mr. President."
Chris Bearde was toiling away on a new episode of Laugh-In two weeks later. Nixon felt that he owed the Laugh-In staff a big thank you. "Nixon had just been elected and Paul was instrumental in that. It was a hugely successful time for all of us," recalls Bearde. "Us having a show that looked like it helped elect him - we were the hottest show in town. It was an amazing time. We were all sitting there going through the show and there was a phone call. It was for Paul Keyes. Paul said, 'Hello, blah, blah blah. George? It's the President-elect. He wants to speak to you.' George thought it was a joke. He picked up the phone and said, 'Yeah and I'm Petula Clark. Who the hell is this?' Nixon said, 'This is the President-elect of the United States, Richard Nixon' and George [dismissed him] - gave the phone back to Paul. Paul said, 'George, it is Nixon.' So, George picked up the phone and said, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, Mr. Nixon. Everyone is always playing jokes on me. I want to thank you so much for doing Laugh-In.' And Nixon said, 'Yes, George, l thank you. I do appreciate it. You helped us and we helped each other and it was fantastic." The writers sat around the table listening to this conversation and were stunned at the way the phone call ended. Bearde explains, "Nixon said to George, 'I just wanted to ask you a question. I know that you have a nickname, don't you?' George's nickname was Crazy Fucking George. Everyone called him that. I still [use] that on my e-mail to him. So George said, 'Yeah.' Nixon asked, 'What does CFG stand for?' And George said, 'Mr. President, it stands for Crazy Funny George.' And Nixon said, 'No, it doesn't. Don't bullshit me. It's Crazy Fucking George and don't ever speak to me again."
Laugh-In staffers admit that, despite the common comparison to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, their left-wing faction could not or would not ever perform anti-war editorials on their program. "Smothers Brothers were great," says George Schlatter. "We directed a lot of attention to the Smothers Brothers and hid behind them ... We were on both sides of all issues, but we did not have a political agenda. There was no intent with what we did." No intent other than, as Dan Rowan said, "to entertain the audience. If it's funny, we do it ... The one thing I try to avoid is making audiences think." Unlike Schlatter, Paul Keyes held the Smothers Brothers and their clear stance against the government, the military and the Vietnam War in contempt. Whether he imposed his political will on Laugh-In or not seems to depend on whom you ask. One thing is for certain: he flat-out encouraged Richard Nixon to go after The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Noted political scholar Stanley I. Kutler won a major lawsuit in the late nineties that resulted in the release of the "long-suppressed" Nixon tapes. At the same time he unearthed Paul Keyes' intention to stamp out television shows with contrarian views. "Paul Keyes," says Kutler, "suggested to Nixon that television entertainment programs be monitored for deliberately negative comments about the Administration. Keyes specifically targeted the Smothers Brothers program on CBS. Apparently the President saw one sequence in which the comedians said they found nothing to laugh about when considering the news about Vietnam or the [inner] cities ... The President was not amused." Kutler emphasizes that Keyes "wanted such programs monitored and he wanted supporters to write objections to the producers." Tom Smothers had long contended that it was the Nixon White House that had as much to do with his television show's cancellation as the CBS Network itself. For the longest time the only proof he had were rumblings and hearsay. Unbeknownst to Smothers, the head writer of a competing program was egging on Nixon to do so. Keyes found the President quite receptive.
March 11, 1969
TO: John Ehrlichman
FROM: The President
You will recall that on several occasions I have suggested the 5 O'Clock group9 might direct some of its activities toward the letter to the editor and call to television commentators and programs. I feel that such action might produce more in the way of hard achievement than discussions on the grand strategy as to when RN should appear and how many press conferences he should have, etc. I realize that some of the latter can be helpful and, of course, is necessary to maintain the morale of the group. From the standpoint of what such a group can really contribute, it is important always to have in mind that everybody has some idea as to what the President can do and that the primary service of the President's associates is to see what they can do in his support, beyond what he does himself.
In this connection, Paul Keyes has often spoken about the necessity to monitor television programs on which there are deliberately negative comments which deserve some reaction on the part of our friends. One of the programs Paul suggested we watch was the Smothers Brothers. Sunday night they had one sequence in which one said to the other that he found it difficult to find anything to laugh about - Vietnam, the cities, etc. but "Richard Nixon's solving those problems..." and "that's really funny."
The line didn't get a particularly good reaction from the television audience but beyond that it is the kind of line that should, particularly at this time, receive some calls and letters strenuously objecting to that kind of attack. I think it is not too late (you will probably be reading this memorandum on Tuesday morning) to have a few letters go to the producers of the program objecting to that kind of comment "particularly in view of the great public approval of RN's handling of foreign policy, etc. etc." ... ... ...
Would you give me an indication as to what kind of program is being set up to handle particularly TV commentaries of this type as well as the letters to the editor approach. (The latter, of course, is not nearly as important.)
President Richard M. Nixon
Shortly after this correspondence a scathing diatribe against The Smothers Brothers appeared in a publication that, up to that point, had always been supportive: TV Guide. "The Smothers Brothers have been saying plenty to arouse a substantial part of America. Where does satire end - and sacrilege begin ... Shall a network be required to provide time for a Joan Baez to pay tribute to her draft-evading husband while hundreds of thousands of viewers in the households of men fighting and dying in Vietnam look on in shocked resentment ... at this writing, neither of the other two networks has said it will pick up this show. We applaud the judgment." The Smothers Brothers were shocked by the article's mood and "by the swiftness of its publication." The TV Guide editorial had been pumped out three weeks after the Ehrlichman memo. The piece was unsigned, signifying that a member of the Nixon team had crafted it. But why would TV Guide so willingly have run a piece ghost written by the White House? The answer may lay in the rumors that publisher Walter Annenberg was actively seeking the gig of ambassador to Great Britain; a job that Nixon was soon to appoint. It's unlikely that Keyes himself had a part in the actual penning of the scathing comments, but he certainly influenced their timbre.10 The man more likely to have shaped the vernacular was a Nixon wordsmith, speechwriter and hatchet man that regularly ghost wrote pro-Nixon editorials: Pat Buchanan.11
Tom Smothers insists that CBS did not cancel The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Instead, he claims, the brothers were flat-out fired. Either way, the show ended on April 4, 1969 - within Richard Nixon's first one hundred days in office. Keyes did not stop with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He attacked the very comedy show he was employed by "when Nixon became president," says George Schlatter. "Paul Keyes was still on the show. They did not like what we were doing; anything political. We were doing jokes about oil, about nuclear, about the Pentagon, about the President, about the Congress, about corruption, about graft, about greed, about everything. They didn't like any of it. They weren't funny to Nixon." Dick Martin and Dan Rowan themselves were increasingly loyal to Richard Nixon and wouldn't dare do anything to ruffle his sensibilities. Chris Bearde believes the contempt of the comedy duo lasted for decades. "Dick Martin [did not] like George at all," he says. "And Dan Rowan hated George."
Now that Nixon was President, Keyes' duties expanded. He was suddenly part of the official White House staff, salaried at over thirty thousand dollars a year, and provided with his own office. He helped Raymond Price shape Nixon's inaugural address in January 1969, weaving a passage from "the prayer of St. Francis." Then suddenly, after working on the first four episodes of Laugh-In's new 1969-70 season, Paul Keyes told his staff they could go sock-it-to-themselves. He quit.
"His official reason," says Hal Erickson, "was that the series had become too dirty and tasteless to suit him, but the inside dope was that he was no longer able to strike a happy medium between his own right-wing Republicanism and the left-leaning political views of his writing staff." Speaking to the media in the following days, Keyes said he was leaving on moral grounds and that the show had descended into a shadow of its former self. Laugh-In was now "slanted, vulgar and dirty." Dan Rowan explained in a letter to his good friend, novelist John D. MacDonald, dated October 16, 1969, "He had apparently been quite upset by the way things were going on the show for some time. I was unaware of his unhappiness until it was too late. You see, Paul is a very strong Nixon man. He is one of the inner circle of Nixon friends and advisers. For whatever humor is in that campaign, Paul is the guy who wrote it. He was the first man into the suite on election night. President Nixon calls him four or five times a week."
With Keyes gone, the show did not move further to the left as might have been anticipated. Instead, NBC was now under more pressure from the White House. Certain things that Keyes may have let left-wing writers get away with were absolutely unacceptable to a corporate network that honored its commercial and political connections. "Political gags became even more closely scrutinized," says Michelle Hilmes. "By 1971 ... NBC had dispatched an emissary from New York to Burbank to tell its producers that Laugh-In could no longer make political references of any sort in its humor. Whether the Nixon administration put pressure on NBC to curb Laugh-In," says Hilmes, "and whether the network capitulated to that pressure" is uncertain. The White House likely was more aggressive with Laugh-In once Keyes left, as Nixon felt he could no longer trust them. The reason why, he explained to the Reverend Billy Graham, was because the staff was dominated by Jews.12
Paul Keyes' next project was a reaction to the hostility around the war in Vietnam. Keyes enlisted a man for a patriotic special that he had been friendly with since The Dean Martin Show: John Wayne.13 Swing Out, Sweet Land aired in November 1970 and featured the Duke in a series of typically labored comedy sketches. Guest celebrities included Keyes loyalists Dan Rowan and the two Martins, Dean and Dick. "Everybody thinks this is going to be a big flag-waving show because John Wayne is the star," said Keyes during the September rehearsals for the special. "But people will find out that it's going to be fun. Wait till they see ... Lucille Ball as the Statue of Liberty." Time magazine awarded it the distinction "Year's Most Embarrassing Special."
Paul Keyes, who quit a year ago as head writer for Laugh-In, is expected to return to the shaky series next season. He is a supporter of Nixon and wrote the John Wayne special. He said he did not like the political direction Laugh-In was taking, so he decided to quit. He has been assured by NBC that things will be changed.
- Associated Press, May 14, 1971
Keyes, a bearish, deeply tanned man with horn-rimmed glasses and silvery hair, said in a recent interview, "I left 18 months ago over a disagreement and I was told a few months ago the cause of the disagreement is gone."
- Associated Press, July 20, 1971
In Keyes' absence the show had plummeted in the ratings; a shocking and rapid tumble from number one to number seven to number thirty-five. Rowan and Martin were glad to welcome the conservative Keyes back and granted him full creative control. The Chicago Tribune wrote that Rowan and Martin had insisted on Paul Keyes' return because now they felt that George Schlatter was "slanting too much Laugh-In comedy against Richard Nixon and the GOP." As far as Schlatter was concerned, such interference was crippling. "The reason I left the show - that was pretty much it.14 Pressure from the White House that they weren't going to allow us to do any more political humor." When Keyes returned to Laugh-In for the autumn of 1971, there had indeed been some changes. First of all, the ratings had tanked. Secondly, it was showing signs of irrelevance. With The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour thrown off the air, Norman Lear's sitcom All in the Family emerged as the most cutting of all comedic political commentary. The protagonist foil, Archie Bunker, was a bigoted Nixon supporter. Laugh-In, back in the hands of Nixon's good friend, reliant on a bevy of homophobic gags, and suffering the loss of fan-favorite Goldie Hawn to motion pictures, suddenly seemed painfully passé - even blasé. Now employed were a pair of green writers from Toronto that found themselves arguing with Paul Keyes almost immediately. "According to rookie Laugh-In writers Lorne Michaels and Hart Pomerantz," explains Hal Erickson, "every one of their efforts to crack wise at Richard Nixon's expense was cut short by Paul Keyes; even when the team managed to slip an anti-Nixon joke into the script, it would be neutered by the older staffers before it made it to the air." Keyes was no longer subtle about it. He had grown terribly protective of the President. Staff writer Carolyn Raskin remembers "Paul Keyes defending the Nixon administration" without pause for the rest of the show's run and Gary Deeb of The Chicago Tribune was slamming Keyes as a "hack producer." In February of 1972, Rowan and Martin purchased George Schlatter's twenty-five percent ownership of the program and appointed Paul Keyes, beyond his role as head writer, as "head of programming." That autumn, as Laugh-In prepared for its first season without Schlatter, ABC scheduled the Oscar winning film Patton to go up against Keyes' comedy show. During an NBC press conference that announced the new fall line-up, Keyes lamented that he didn't know how they were going to compete. "How do you combat it?" asked Keyes. "We're going to pass out documents," he joked, "explaining that George C. Scott is a fag. A commie, pinko fag!" George Schlatter observes that in "its last season and a half, the show went into the toilet so bad. It lost its political balance and became more of a political platform for Dan and Dick who were very heavily into Nixon. They actually had a quota of Daniel Ellsberg jokes, a quota of anti-New York Times jokes, and a weekly segment on the [left-wing] distortion of the news." It also just happened to be an election year.
Hollywood Guide, That's Henry
San Clemente (UPI)
Soviet Ambassador Anatolly F. Dobrynin meets with President Nixon today, following a tour of Hollywood studios guided by Henry Kissinger. Kissinger met Dobrynin in Los Angeles Tuesday, after the Russian visited a recently opened Soviet consulate in San Francisco, and took the ambassador on a tour that included Universal Studios and the NBC television studioes [sic]. They visited the set of the "Tonight" show and then dropped in on a scriptwriting session of about 10 writers for "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."
- July 12, 1972
In January 1973, the devastating Christmas bombing of Hanoi, in which over fifteen hundred civilians were indiscriminately killed, was fresh in the minds of many and endeared Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to few. The invective thrown at the President from around the world seemed to affect Nixon's mental health. To keep him from dwelling on the criticism, Keyes recruited Rowan and Martin to construct a special birthday presentation for the President on the 9th of January. Nixon's wife arranged a surprise party in the White House. After an elaborate dinner, an exclusive group of party attendees retired to the White House theater to join the President for a screening of The Maltese Falcon. Spliced into the picture shortly after the opening credits, much to everyone's surprise, was a custom-made birthday sketch featuring the two Laugh-In hosts. Rowan and Martin sang an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday and delivered a routine written by Keyes that ridiculed some thorns in Nixon's side.
Dan Rowan: Our President is sixty years old today.
Dick Martin: George McGovern is sixty years old!?
Dan Rowan: George McGovern is not our President.
Dick Martin: Sure, you can tell me that, but how are you going to break it to the Washington Post?
Nixon was ecstatic and a thank-you phone call was placed to the two comedians later in the week. The exchange, like so many, is captured in the Nixon Tapes:
Keyes was appointed the official White House "talent procurer" helping to compose bourgeois extravaganzas for heads of state on Pennsylvania Avenue. Keyes arranged performances from Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Tony Martin and The Johnny Mann Singers. Wrote the Washington Post of Keyes' string of bookings, "To the dismay of some observers, the White House [is] becoming little more than a gold ring on the comeback carousel." Keyes steadfastly stood by the president throughout the Watergate scandal and they regularly spoke on the phone. Laugh-In was canceled in March 1973. Richard Nixon canceled himself a year later.
The remainder of Keyes' Hollywood career focused on television specials. He had produced the Emmys, the Grammys and an annual series of tributes to old film stars for the American Film Institute.15 With Nixon out of power Keyes' political influence waned - with one bizarre exception. The Boston Globe was reporting in the spring of 1976 that Paul Keyes had set up a meeting between Frank Sinatra and the director of the CIA, George H.W. Bush. The future President declined comment when asked about the meeting stating, "I don't discuss matters of this nature and I have no plans to get into that. I prefer not to go any further." Sinatra, it was suggested, had offered to covertly gather information around the world, during concert tours, on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency. Jonathan Bush, George's brother, was present for the meeting and was quoted by the Globe as having said, "He emphasized time and again that he wanted to do his part for the country ... We felt like applauding after Sinatra left. We had a big laugh about it and then we all got smashed."
It is now common to turn on the television and find a sleep-inducing chat show segment with a desperate, lumbering candidate. Because of this, it is easy to underestimate the importance of Richard Nixon's Laugh-In appearance. Paul Keyes and Richard Nixon paved the way for similar relations between comedy writers and presidents, such as that of Al Franken and Bill Clinton. Most importantly, the 1968 election changed the world of politics. There once was a time when politicians, Nixon initially being one of them, felt sincerity was a virtue. But it was soon realized that clutching to such a concept in the television age was a political death knell. It was manipulation of the media - the message - that was most important. One week before the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, Roger Ailes would say to Paul Keyes, "This is the beginning of a whole new concept. This is it. This is the way they'll be elected forevermore."
1The Chicago Tribune, in a 1956 article, named the students in the program as Herb Reich, Lois Balk, Phil Green, Mike Miller, Bernard Ilsen, Woody Allen and Paul Keyes.
2Omnibus was one of the most highbrow programs that television's so-called Golden Age had to offer. "Omnibus generated ... a loyal, but limited, network audience for intellectual programming," says Ron Simon. The show lasted for over a decade, yet was not granted much respect by its host networks. It rarely kept a regular time slot for long, regularly being shuffled around on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It started on CBS, jumped to the weakest network, ABC, and finished its final five years at NBC, where Keyes joined the staff. Much of the program holds up today with incredible footage ripe for rediscovery. Splendid appearances from James Thurber, Nichols and May, incredible jazz musicians and regular cinéma vérité documentaries about poverty in The Bowery or Kentucky coal mining communities remain absolutely spellbinding.
3Some sources say that Paul Keyes met Nixon when the former vice-president appeared with Paar for the second time in 1963. He certainly got to know Nixon better that year, but he met him for the first time while still head writer in 1960.
4Peter Marshall, host of the original Hollywood Squares, was in a comedy team with junior movie star Tommy Noonan in the nineteen fifties. They played the nightclub circuit with Rowan and Martin. Marshall grew to detest future Laugh-In host Dan Rowan. Marshall wrote in his autobiography: "Now I don't dislike many people. Right now I can only think of two: Bert Convy is one and the other is Dan Rowan. Okay, okay, I know both these guys are dead, but that doesn't change the fact that I couldn't stand either of them. Tommy Noonan and I first met Dick Martin and Dan when Dick was a bartender and Dan was a used car salesman. Dick was a great guy, friendly and funny ... Dan, however, had a snooty attitude, even then. I always felt that he thought he was better than the rest of us. Tommy introduced Dick and Dan, wrote material for them, and got the their first agent ... I must say that Tommy had a lot more faith in Rowan and Martin than I did. He spent a lot of time helping them with their routines and really encouraged them to stay together when things were pretty tough. Over the years, Dan pulled some pretty low tricks on us, the worst of which was taking our material without telling us or acknowledging us in any way. Tommy never let it bother him. Then Tommy got sick, really sick. I called his good friend Dan Rowan and told him that Tommy was at the Motion Picture Hospital and he was dying. Dan not only didn't come out to see Tommy, but never even picked up the phone to call. I couldn't forgive him for ignoring someone who had been nothing but a good friend, and I've disliked him intensely ever since ... I would have been unhappy if anyone had ever booked him on the show, and I think everybody knew it."
5An exception was a biting, political joke often cited by those that claim the show was every bit as satirical as That Was the Week That Was. However, it's generally the only example cited. Regardless, it is a strong joke. During the regular "cocktail party" segment on a 1968 episode, Dan Rowan delivered the line: "You know, we went into Vietnam as advisers. Last week we dropped 400,000 tons of advice."
6Allan Manings was indeed left-of-spectrum and a victim of the Hollywood blacklist in the nineteen fifties. His writing partner on Laugh-In, according to Chris Beard "was a [right-wing] guy named Hugh Wedlock ... which was very interesting because Alan was to the left-wing of Stalin!"
7The Democrats had an obtuse candidate for President in Hubert Humphrey. As Dick Martin explained "the dumb son of a bitch" had said no when asked to appear on Laugh-In. Had it been up to a man named Arie Kopelman, he would have. Kopelman was an adman from Doyle, Dane and Bernbach, hired to manage the Humphrey campaign. He too was a recent McLuhan convert and had tried to put the theories into practice immediately. "A candidate can't be too smooth," Kopelman explained. "There have to be some rough edges that cling to the surface of the country and find their way into the nooks and crannies. If a communications effort is too smooth it becomes that - a communications effort on the candidate's behalf rather than a projection of the candidate himself." To his peril, Hubert Humphrey fired Kopelman half-way through the year for being "a fast talker."
8Connie Francis was recruited by the Nixon campaign after the fading singer started to appear on afternoon talk shows complaining about the hippie movement. "She started to show up at places like The Merv Griffin Show," wrote McGinniss, "where she would tell how proud she was of what America was doing in Vietnam and how disgusting it was to see men without crew cuts." The Nixon for President campaign ad that ran during the infamous Laugh-In episode was undoubtedly effective to some degree, but to the consternation of TV critic Jack Gould it "embraced all the ills of the oversimplified campaign spot announcement. Connie Francis ... said that in her overseas travels she found disrespect for the United States, and here at home there was a regrettable lack of respect for authority. Mr. Nixon, she said, would put matters aright if elected." Treleaven regretted ever having used Connie Francis for anything other than singing. "I'm really learning to hate that girl," he said.
9Richard Nixon's Five O'Clock Group was "a task force created to manage news flow" according to Kutler's book The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard M. Nixon.
10Tom Smothers had no way of knowing that the head writer of Laugh-In was asking the President to go after him, but even without that knowledge, Smothers was not a fan of Laugh-In. In his eyes the program was both shallow and safe, featuring a meaningless reliance on catch phrases. David Bianculli remembers one particularly bitter episode when the Smothers went after Laugh-In. "Tom and Dick pop out in a Comedy Hour approximation of the Laugh-In joke wall. Tom spouts a bunch of popular Laugh-In catchphrases, rapidly but without any inflection or enthusiasm: 'Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls. Sock it to me. Very interesting. Here comes the judge...' Dick interrupts him and complains, 'That's not funny.' 'I know it's not,' Tom replies wryly. 'But it sure is successful."
11Pat Buchanan had a lesser role in the image shaping, consumed as he was with the exhausting task of writing Nixon speeches. However, his tactical work often involved ghost writing articles for publication. His piece for Reader's Digest a few months earlier, had the sole purpose of terrifying middle-America into voting for Nixon. In What Has Happened to America? Buchanan took his best shot at fear mongering. His byline did not identify him as a member of Nixon's inner circle. The article claimed that America was now "among the most lawless and violent in the history of free peoples ... the decline in respect for public authority and the rule of law in America ... the symptoms are everywhere manifest: in the public attitude toward police, in the mounting traffic in illicit drugs, in the volume of teenage-arrests, in campus disorders ... Far from becoming a great society, ours is becoming a lawless society." The answer to these problems, according to Pat Buchanan and Reader's Digest, was a man that had been entrenched in government all along anyway, Richard M. Nixon.
12It is no longer controversial to cast Richard Nixon as an anti-Semite. The declassification of the Nixon tapes gives us blatant insight into the President's unwavering, racist perception of the world. In an Oval Office conversation with the Reverend Billy Graham in 1972, Paul Keyes' name was raised. "[The Jewish] stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain," says Reverend Graham. "You believe that?" asks Nixon. "Yes, sir," confirms Graham. "Oh, boy," Nixon continues. "So do I. I can't ever say that, but I believe it." "No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something," adds Graham ambiguously. Later in the conversation Billy Graham states that he has Jewish friends in the media that "swarm around me and are friendly to me ... They don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country." Nixon goes on to say that "we can't talk about it publicly," but Paul Keyes told him "that 11 of 12 writers [on Laugh-In] are Jewish." Nixon adds that it doesn't mean "that all the Jews are bad" but that "most are left-wing radicals." Once Graham leaves the Oval Office, Nixon says to his aide Haldeman, "You know it was good we got this point about the Jews across." Haldeman deferred, "It's a shocking point." "Well," qualified Nixon, "it's also, the Jews are irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards."
13Keyes forged a relationship with John Wayne when he appeared as a guest on The Dean Martin Show. In 1966 Keyes would contribute the accompanying words for a 1966 Photoplay article about Wayne's jaunt to Vietnam where he visited with American soldiers.
14Schlatter explained different reasons for his leaving the show at varying times. Sometimes he says he left because the show was too much under the influence of Paul Keyes, while other sources suggest than Rowan and Martin pushed for him to be fired, and essentially did so when they purchased his portion of the series. However, in 1973, Schlatter said, "After I left, it was said that the disagreement was over political viewpoint, which couldn't be farther from the truth. Laugh-In wasn't that political. I think it became more political after I left."
15One such AFI homage was for James Cagney. The legendary Hollywood icon was a Nixon fan and he asked Paul Keyes to set up some kind of meeting for the two. "I thought it would be nice to go in and pay my respects," Cagney said, as if it were a funeral. "Do you think you could arrange it?" Nixon's daughter noted that the three men came together in 1975 and "enjoyed a luncheon of skim milk, Ry Krisp crackers and cottage cheese with pineapple. He enjoyed beef stroganoff with the others and served the last bottle of red wine given him by Winston Churchill in 1958." Reportedly, at the end of the afternoon, as he placed his hat on his head and opened the front door, Cagney said, "Well, Mr. President, thanks to you there are no American boys dying anywhere in the world. There are no American boys fighting anywhere. Thanks to you, we are talking to China and we have an understanding with Russia." Paul Keyes said that Nixon replied, "Yes, Jimmy, we did all the big things right and we screwed up the goddamned little things."
Give Candidates Funny Bones
Special to the Times from The Washington Post, July 21, 1968
In a recent issue of TV Guide, writer PM Clepper has found the missing dimension: political gag writers. "Today," [says] Clepper, when office seekers hire Madison Avenue image polishers, poll-takers and make up men, staff gag writers are no longer in hiding." Clepper finds that Richard Nixon used to have a ghost gagwriter named Paul Keyes, now head writer of Laugh-In. Keyes has been succeeded as Mr. Nixon's sense of humor by Bob Howard, an alumnus of the Bob Hope writing staff now toiling for Merv Griffin. Mort Sahl, claims Clepper, was [the] one hired to write jokes for John F. Kennedy. If one has been mystified by the quips credited to a humorless Ronald Reagan, the mystery is solved by Clepper. The gags are turned out by Pat Buttram, once the clown sidekick to Roy Rogers and now the larcenous country boy of "Green Acres." Buttram is credited with the authorship of Reagan's gags about hippies. These included: "A hippie wears a button reading, 'Make Love, Not War' but doesn't look capable of either." Another Buttram creation that emerged from Reagan is "A hippie looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah." The need for the professional gag writer is said to be emphasized by TV's quick exhaustion of material. Once a politician could repeat his funnies endlessly as a whistle-stop tour provided a fresh audience every hundred miles. But TV, says Clepper, "uses up a politician's gags just as fast as it uses up Johnny Carson's."
Producer May Sink Duos Ship
Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1975
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, the veteran saloon comics who caught lightning in a bottle in 1968 when they stumbled into Laugh-In, are plotting a television comeback. Nothing's definite yet, but ABC is toying with a topical vehicle called The Rowan and Martin Report. There's only one thing seriously wrong with the project: the producer is Paul Keyes.
Like most behind the scenes kingpins, the name isn't exactly a household word. But Paul Keyes is the hack producer who turned Laugh-In into a toothless, "inoffensive" comedy hour - devoid of satire and sociopolitical spark that made it a milestone in TV history. Laugh-In was the creation of George Schlatter, the man who now produces Cher's variety show on CBS. Under Schlatter, the first three seasons of Laugh-In literally revolutionized TV comedy. Then Rowan and Martin started feuding with Schlatter. They accused him of slanting too much of Laugh-In's humor against Richard Nixon. They bought out his 25 percent ownership of the program. And they replaced him with the aforementioned Keyes. While basically a dullard, Keyes nonetheless is an interesting cat. During the original glory days of Laugh-In he had been a co-producer of the show under Schlatter. Then he quit and went to the White House as a Nixon jokewriter. (And, sure enough, while Keyes was there, some of the President's public statements were hilarious.) Returning to Laugh-In - this time as boss - Keyes immediately banned not only anti-Nixon gags, but political wisecracks of any sort. The freewheeling aura spawned by Schlatter gave way to Keyes' feeble mixture of bathroom jokes, homosexual gags and Dick Martin in drag. Now comes ABC with plans for a relevant, contemporary comedy show based on the events of the day. And even though Rowan and Martin sold out to the power structure and eventually softened Laugh-In into a dull witted exercise in vaudeville, there's no doubt they can do the job when they put their minds to it. It's producer Keyes who can sink the ship. Everything Keyes has been in charge of - the last sorry days of Laugh-In, some Rowan and Martin specials, last spring's Emmy telecast - has been unsophisticated and dull.
Los Angeles Free Press columnist Harlan Ellison was one of the few to point out the distinction seen in this article during the time that both Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour were in there original run. It is essential to note that Ellison was an outspoken opponent of war, Richard Nixon and American foreign policy. Here is a brief excerpt from his column dated February 21, 1969:
I don't stick up for Laugh-In; though it breaks me up with much of its humor, I think it's a cop-out, and never gets near the gut of anything genuinely controversial. A few scrotum references are not my idea of a dangerous vision, contrary to the belief of some literary critics. But the Smothers Guys do [get near the gut].
The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss (1968, Pocket Books)
Pat Nixon: The Untold Story by Julie Nixon Eisenhower (1986, Simon and Schuster)
Richard Nixon: Rhetorical Strategist by Hal Bochin (1990, Greenwood Press)
The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard M. Nixon by Stanley I. Kutler (1990, W.W. Norton)
High Definition Television: An Annotated Multidisciplinary Bibliography by James E. Sudalnik (1994, Greenwood)
Campaign Comedy: From Clinton to Kennedy by Gerald C. Gardner (1994, Wayne State University)
From Beautiful Downtown Burbank: A Critical History of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In by Hal Erickson (2000, McFarland and Co)
Backstage with the Original Hollywood Square by Peter Marshall and Adrienne Armstrong (2002, Rutledge Hill Press)
The Politics of Anti-Semitism by Alexander Cockburn (2003, AK Press)
Celebrity in Chief by Alan Schroeder (2004, Basic Books)
Never Trust a Local: Inside the Nixon White House by Charles E. Stewart (2005, Algora Publishing)
They'll Never Put That On The Air by Allan Neuwirth (2006, Allworth Press)
Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli (2009, Simon and Schuster)
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and The Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein (2009, Scribner)
Electronic Politics: The Image Game; Time, September 21, 1970
John Wayne Filming His First TV Special; Gadsden Times, September 22, 1970
Sinatra Offered Spy Agency Help; Associated Press, April 16, 1976
Nixon, Billy Graham target Jews on Tape; St Petersburg Times, March 2, 2002
Obituaries; Paul W. Keyes; LA Times, Jan 8 2004
Chris Bearde - Interview with Author - September 13, 2010