Sock it to me: behind the scenes of Richard Nixon’s ‘Laugh-In’ cameo

After two devastating election losses, to President John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Governor Pat Brown in 1962, former vice president Richard Nixon announced his retirement from public service and spent the next few years biding his time at a Manhattan law office. All the while, he was rebuilding his political career.

Within a year of his supposed retirement he hired his very own comedian, a jokey press flak to help him overcome those creepy vibes he zapped through television sets during his unshaven, sweaty and sickly debate performance in 1960. Paul Keyes, a right-winger who cut his teeth in the 1950s’ NBC Writers Development Program with funny bones such as Woody Allen, maintained a writing gig on “The Jack Paar Show.” There, Nixon first met Keyes during a casual March 1963 appearance in which the former vice president wise-cracked and played the piano. Paar introduced the scribbler to Nixon that day as “an Irish Catholic from Boston who would vote against JFK.”

March 8, 1963: Nixon plays the piano on “The Jack Parr Show.”

Keyes became a regular at Nixon’s law firm on 20 Broad Street and intermittently remained on the politician’s payroll for years. Nixon needed material to warm up the crowds as he campaigned for Republican congressman up for reelection in 1964 and 1966, or for speaking engagements that maintained his relevancy among active conservatives. Keyes is responsible for Nixon’s self-deprecating yet lighthearted quips such as:

  • “I’m a dropout from the electoral college. I flunked debate.”
  • “[President Johnson] doesn’t come across well on television — and I’m an expert on that.”

In September 1968, Nixon’s quiet campaigning turned full force yet again for the presidency. Nixon vied for the Oval Office against sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and, with two months to go until Election Day, neither candidate appealed to a hip crowd. Nixon was still perceived as an awkward penguin, and liberals were still grieving the loss of Senator Bobby Kennedy, assassinated three months prior.

Then came what Nixon later characterized as a godsend: the series premiere of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” network television’s flower-powered precursor to sketch comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV.” (Oh, BTW, here’s my favorite “SCTV” sketch. Watch if you want.) While “Laugh-In” purported itself to be the hippy dippy countercultural hub Monday nights on NBC, it was only posturing as some kind of groovy thing. Its head writer was an avid conservative — one you already know, and one who was able to score airtime with the Republican presidential nominee.

Against his numerous advisers’ wishes, 55-year old Richard Nixon was convinced by Keyes to appear on the series premiere of “Laugh-In,” Monday, September 16, 1968. (The show was picked up for a full season after a one-off special in September 1967.)

Keyes, still on Nixon’s payroll during the campaign, would receive calls from the candidate “four or five times a week,” recalled Dan Rowan in 1969. “He is very close to the administration on a personal and on a political basis.” According to co-host Dick Martin, Keyes was the only one who “would have ever been able to get Nixon to come on the show and say ‘sock it to me.'”

September 16, 1968: Richard Nixon’s cameo on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”

The race was close. “He would do anything to get elected,” says ‘Laugh-In’ creator 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.”

But “sock it to me” wasn’t the first line Keyes pitched to Team Nixon. In A Critical History of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, author Hal Erickson writes:

Asked to say ‘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 took six takes for Nixon to deliver those four seconds of dialogue. Set members said he came off too angry in the first five, but, after the sixth take, Schlatter said he and Keyes “grabbed the tape and escaped before his advisers got to him.”

But whatever might have concerned the aides’ about taping wasn’t brought up again. Two months later Richard Nixon was elected the 37th President of the United States, beating out Hubert Humphrey in both the popular vote (31,710,470 to 30,898,055) and electoral vote (301 to 191). Third party candidate George Wallace picked up 9,906,473 popular votes and 46 electoral votes.

“Nixon said … that appearing on ‘Laugh-In’ is what got him elected, and I believe that,” Schlatter sulked. “And I’ve had to live with that for 38 fucking years.”

Sock it to me: behind the scenes of Richard Nixon's 'Laugh-In' cameo
October 1968: Dan Rowan and Dick Martin pose with Nixon at a campaign stop in beautiful downtown Burbank, one month after the candidate’s “Laugh-In” appearance. (via)

Hollywood wasn’t happy about it. Lena Horne kicked Dick Martin in the shin, blaming his show for promoting a candidate who eventually expanded the Vietnam War and whose staff members were convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. Martin tried to remind Horne that, one week later, he also offered Humphrey the same chance to appear on the show. Humphrey turned it down, which he later regretted. George Wallace was also offered a shot on the variety hour.

Before Team Humphrey passed on the opportunity, the “Laugh-In” co-host overheard an advisor tell the Democratic candidate: “They’ll end up throwing water on you [which became a frequent gag on the show]! Like we’re gonna throw water on a fucking presidential candidate. Absurd.”

Schlatter claims the show simply wanted Humphrey to say “I’ll sock it to you, Dick!”

Nixon received the standard $210 honorarium for his guest appearance, which went straight into his campaign.