The Unthinking Man’s Nixon’s Four Second Moment
Forty years ago yesterday (sorry about that) — on 16 September 1968 — RN appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
In those days the show was a big thing; and his appearance on it was a big deal.
When Laugh-In premiered on NBC in January 1968, it was something the likes of which had never before been seen on TV. Overnight it became the number one rated TV show that year — with fully three million more viewers than the number two runner up, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Here’s Elizabeth Kolbert’s description of the Nixon Sock It To Me cameo in The New Yorker (19 April 2004):
[The Nixon episode of Laugh-In] was broadcast at the height of Nixon’s (ultimately successful) campaign against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, and was an immediate sensation. George Schlatter, the creator of “Laugh-In” … told me that Nixon had been extremely reluctant to be on the show; although the producers had repeatedly entreated him to appear, his campaign aides had even more insistently urged him not to. Eventually, the race brought Nixon out to Los Angeles. He gave a press conference, and Schlatter and one of “Laugh-In”’s writers, Paul Keyes, who happened to be a close friend of the former Vice-President’s, went over to watch it, bringing a TV camera with them.
“While his advisers were telling him not to do it, Paul was telling him how much it would mean to his career,” Schlatter recalled. “And we went in, and he said, ‘Sock it to me.’ It took about six takes, because it sounded angry: ‘Sock-it-to-me!’ After that, we grabbed the tape and escaped before his advisers got to him.
“Then, realizing what we had done—because he did come out looking like a nice guy—we pursued Humphrey all over the country, trying to get him to say, ‘I’ll sock it to you, Dick!’” Schlatter went on. “And Humphrey later said that not doing it may have cost him the election. We didn’t realize how effective it was going to be. But there were other factors in the election, too—I can’t take all the blame.”
Mr. Schlatter’s account of what went down that day is about as first hand as you can get. But it doesn’t necessarily jibe with what we see happening on screen. Far from being angry and begrudging, RN’s delivery is relaxed and apt and, even, ingenious.
Most celebrities who appeared in that coveted slot gave the famous line a straightforward, almost challenging reading: “Sock it to me!”
But RN played around with it and showed how much fun a man can have with four monosyllables. He hit exactly the right note of knowing self-deprecation by turning his head to face the camera and delivering the well-known phrase as a question instead of a statement; and, even better, as a question with an unbelieving emphasis on the last word: “Sock it to me?”
Nixon suddenly showing up in that déclassé venue was funny. Nixon saying “Sock it to me” was funnier still. But Nixon saying it in that way was what made it a home run. The timing and the delivery has the fingerprints of Paul Keyes all over it. He was, as Ms. Kolbert says, one of the shows writers and one of RN’s friends.
Ms. Kolbert concluded her description of the importance of RN’s Laugh-In debut with a clever line:
Nixon on “Laugh-In” is often cited as a watershed moment in the history of television—the unthinking man’s version of Nixon in China.
If 21-28 February 1972 was the week that changed the world, 16 September 1968 was four seconds that changed….well, changed something.
For a while the only available clip of the brief but memorable moment was an annoying loop on YouTube. But here, now, you can see it exactly as it was seen in millions of American homes on that September Monday night.
Several months ago our colleague David Emig wrote about the importance of RN’s Laugh-In gig; the clip he embedded is, apparently, no longer operative. But it’s Emig’s giant shoulders upon which this post stands.