The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Partridge Family, Maude, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Does it get much better than that? As baby boomers, we can take pride in one of our own, Susan Silver, now of New York City, who wrote for these iconic shows and others. And now she has written a book about it all, Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms Here’s an excerpt about what she calls a particularly fun show to work on, her first foray into the Big Time.
It was almost hard to believe but I’d gotten the incredible job by answering an ad in the paper. It was for an assistant casting director. I’d done casting for an ad agency but this was on a hit TV show that had just premiered and was a phenomenon. It was a breakthrough in style and pace and topical humor mixed with broad slapstick. I loved it, wanted to be a part of it. Any part.
The job to work with an older gentleman, Hal Kemp, a lovely man who was well known in the biz. I was thrilled.
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were the hosts. Dan, handsome, suave straight man and the ditsy, fun-loving Dick, were great guys. I loved working with them. Dan was very driven, professional and serious behind the scenes. Dick was a cut up. He didn’t take anything seriously. He would basically just show up for the taping.
The producers, Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, were two opposites as well. Ed and his lovely wife Natalie took me under their wing. George scared the life out of me. He was funny but you never knew when he’d yell at you.
In the beginning, my desk was in the lobby and I had to help with phones, and do the paperwork on contracts. I wasn’t sure how to do it, but learned. Every day was a new adventure. I was never afraid to go up to anyone, which helped in casting, and sometimes in life.
Unfortunately, Hal died a few months in and I got the job. No, I had nothing to do with his demise. I swear. Right place, right time, this time more prepared. I had been doing much of the work, and Ed Friendly asked me if I would want the job. Would I? Actually it wasn’t that hard as everyone wanted to come on the show. Many times I just had to answer their agents’ call and pass the request on to the producers. The guests on Laugh-In were legendary. All the stars of movies, TV, sports, politics and assorted weirdos came on the show and stuck their heads through the colorful psychedelic wall and say “Sock it to me!”
The most iconic moment was when we got Richard Nixon, then candidate for the presidency, to come on the show and say one of our catch phrases. So in September of 1968, my job was to get the presidential candidate to sign his contract before this next big TV moment. Politely, I stood before him at NBC in “Beautiful Downtown Burbank” as we called it, in my mini-skirt, turtleneck, and long “fall,” the hair extension of the era. Silently Nixon signed, and the powdering resumed.
I’ll admit it. I was secretly hoping I could distract the makeup person who was working on Nixon’s renowned five o’clock shadow. Perhaps he would forget to put enough powder so that the candidate’s sweaty upper lip would be revealed, as in the infamous debate of 1960 — against my beloved JFK. I failed.
He was supposed to say, actually ask: “Sock it to Me?” We had sworn not to throw water on him as we did normally to other cast members, particularly Judy Carne, whose job it was to say it.
His staff had (I can’t resist) nixed his saying “You bet your bippy.” Good move, considering the real connotation of “bippy.”
Our staff was rather evenly split between Democrat/ liberal writers and Republican stalwarts. Among them Paul Keyes, Laugh-In’s head writer, who as one of Nixon’s best buddies, was also working as a Nixon media-meister. Media and politics were just starting their sometimes questionable partnership or adversarial war. Shows like This is the Week that Was, and The Smothers Brothers were more in your face. Laugh-In billed itself as a little naughty, but purposely tamer, in spite of the unrest going on in the country at the time. Plus, we had dance parties.
Nixon’s camp, including Roger Ailes, then a young relatively unknown producer of talk shows, had long been strategizing how to use the medium to change Nixon’s wooden image. We just thought it was our coup to get him. After six takes, he finally got the sentence out with the proper inflection. So there was indeed some sweat.
While we were filming, no one acknowledged the incongruity of Goldie Hawn’s bikinied and tattooed body scooting by. Least of all the candidate. I thought it would be funny if Ruth Buzzi’s old lady character hit him with her purse, but I stopped myself from suggesting that.
Richard Nixon went on to win the election by a slim margin, and many people gave credit— or blame— to our show. This was one of many instances when I interacted with icons of my generation at a pivotal moment in history
My name ran, a split second credit that only my parents could catch, at the end of the broadcast, over the iconic colorful joke wall. My career was only beginning with that quick credit, but it was very meaningful to me. That was my first taste of real “success.”
(Oh, and unbenownst until much later, in spite of our “making” Nixon, his FBI started a file on the show as they had on others that dared to critique. Hoover, himself, answered people who complained about the politics of our show. Scary to read, even now. The famous “enemies list,” too, was a symptom of their paranoia.)
Another job I had was to cast the extras in the dance party. Since I’d been an extra myself that summer in college, I knew the process. I then had to attend the tapings at NBC and handle the stars’ needs. Soon I got my own office and hired someone to be the office receptionist in the lobby.
We’d be in the studio half of the week, and I asked if I could begin doubling as the writers’ assistant. I wanted to learn more about comedy. George agreed since he didn’t have to pay anyone new that way. I was one of the few women in this man’s world, and honestly didn’t think it would be a problem. Except for the fact that when I mentioned I wanted to become a writer I was told that they didn’t want women around the motel where they worked. They wanted to wear their underwear and pass gas without worrying. Yeah, farting kept me from progressing.
In 2016, The New York Times used my little anecdote in an article about Gender Discrimination. I take a lot of pleasure in the fact that it might have been the first time the Grey Lady used the word “fart.”
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