Paul Keyes, who died in 2004 at the age of 79, was a comedy writer best known for heading the staffs that scripted the Tonight Show during Jack Paar’s years hosting it, and that quintessential product of the late 1960s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. He also was a staunch Republican who penned many jokes for leading GOP politicians, and often offered them advice about how to avoid projecting a humorless or stuffed-shirt image.
One of those who consulted Keyes was Richard Nixon. When the President-to-be’s staffers in the 1968 campaign were trying to figure out a way to get across to the public that their man had a sense of humor about himself, it was Paul Keyes who suggested that RN appear on Laugh-In. (In March 1963, at Keyes’s urging, Jack Paar had invited Nixon to the Tonight Show, for his first real public appearance since his defeat in the California gubernatorial election and the ostensible end of his political career. It was on this occasion that he performed his now-famed piano “concerto,” which Frank Langella reprised in the film Frost/Nixon.)
Nixon was quick to respond to Keyes’s suggestion and so it was that on September 16, 1968, in the midst of such familiar hijinks as Henry Gibson’s poetry and Tyrone’s misunderstandings with Gladys, Laugh-In’s viewers saw, for four startling seconds, the Republican candidate for President turn to the camera and intone: “Sock it….to me?!” In the spirit of equal time, Laugh-In producer George Schlatter also offered Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace the chance to appear on the show. They declined. Years later, it has been written, Humphrey said that his decision not to follow Nixon’s lead might have cost him the election.
A few days ago, some of Paul Keyes’s papers went up for sale with a New England auction house, and at its site, a particularly interesting lot is being offered: 81 documents concerning Richard Nixon, including memos written by Keyes, a letter sent to him by Nixon, various letters Keyes received from people associated with the Nixon White House (ranging from Spiro Agnew to Diane Sawyer), and a selection of Nixon’s monthly schedules from the mid-1960s.
The auction house singles out for special comment a 1967 memo written by Jack Bynum, identified as a “New York-based image consultant,” which includes underlining and annotations by RN. The memo focuses on ideas for improving RN’s demeanor in televised appearances, and part of it is described at the site as follows:
Under “The Way He Sounds,” Nixon has underlined “began speaking too quickly after he reached the lecturn…giving the viewer a feeling that he wasn’t completely at ease, in command, or perhaps a bit anxious,” “RN speaks much more sincerely when he has a live audience. When he appears alone on film as he did in a Republican Party telecast, his attempts on intimacy aren’t comsistent,” “He turns it on and off at will, leaving an impression of insincerity…” In the margin next to the last two observations, Nixon has penned and circled: “quere / reply to / Johnson – / Found / broadcast / Meet Press.”
The current bid for all this material is $267, but the end of the auction is still some days away. It just might be the right birthday or holiday present for the “Nixon nut” who only thinks he or she has everything.