Digby Wolfe dies at 82; co-creator of 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In'
The British-born comedy writer helped develop the irreverent TV variety show that became an overnight sensation in the late 1960s. He later became a professor of writing.
Digby Wolfe, left, and producer George Schlatter developed the landmark TV series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" after meeting at a cocktail party. (Los Angeles Times)
Wolfe, who later became a professor of writing at the University of New Mexico, died of lung cancer Wednesday at his home in Albuquerque, said his wife, Patricia Mannion-Wolfe.
The British-born Wolfe — an actor, writer, singer and comedian whose early career included writing for the BBC's satirical "That Was the Week That Was" and hosting an Australian TV variety show — moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'60s.
He joined Schlatter in developing "Laugh-In" after they met at a cocktail party.
"I had the original concept for the show, but I couldn't sell it. It was too far out," Schlatter recalled. "I brought in Digby, who was able to organize it and articulate these wild concepts."
Wolfe, he said, "brought a tremendous amount to 'Laugh-In.' He helped develop it, write it, cast it. He was definitely involved in every aspect of 'Laugh-In.' And he brought with him the kind of British sensibility of comedy and satire. And, of course, his political awareness meant a great deal to the show."
Wolfe also made another significant contribution to the series.
"We had a number of [early] titles; one of them was 'Section 8,' " said Schlatter. But it was the era of sit-ins, be-ins and love-ins, he recalled, "and one day Wolfe came in and said, "We've got to call this show 'Laugh-In.'
"From the beginning to the end, we always paid Digby a royalty on the title."
Launched as a special hosted by comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin in September 1967, "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" premiered as a weekly hourlong series on NBC in January 1968. It went off the air in 1973.
A hip, fast-paced mix of visual and verbal comedy with a cast of zanies that included Judy Carne, Goldie Hawn, Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley, Arte Johnson and Alan Sues, the show ended its first season at the top of the Nielsen ratings.
In 1968, Wolfe shared an Emmy with his "Laugh-In" writing colleagues for outstanding writing achievement in music or variety.
"'Laugh-In' was basically a joke show and the first of the as-fast-as-that shows,' " he said in a 1988 interview with the Australian newspaper the Advertiser. "The laughter was very timely, and people were ready by that time to dispense with the long sketches and variety format that had evolved over the years with a singer, guest acrobat and so on.
"It was the '60s, the show was irreverent, and the time was right for it."
Wolfe went on to be a writer on TV specials for John Denver, Shirley MacLaine and Hawn and for the musical variety show "Cher." He also wrote for a 1977-'78 revival of "Laugh-In," a series of monthly specials featuring a new cast.
Born on June 4, 1929, Wolfe grew up in Felixstowe, England. He made his movie debut with a small role in the 1948 drama "The Weaker Sex" and later starred in the 1957 British TV series "Sheep's Clothing" before moving to Australia in 1959.
At the Liverpool Empire Theatre in the early '60s, he was the warm-up act for the Beatles.
"They used to get a bigger round of applause tuning up behind the curtain than I did at the end of my act," he told the magazine Grit in 2002.
After moving to Los Angeles, Wolfe had small guest roles on TV series such as "The Munsters, "That Girl" and "Bewitched." He also can be heard singing "Pass Me By" during the opening credits of the 1964 Cary Grant movie "Father Goose."
As a part-time writing teacher, Wolfe taught in the Watts Writers' Workshop and at USC for many years.
In 1992, he became a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico's Department of Theatre and Dance. He went on to become a full professor and headed the dramatic writing program until retiring in 2004.
"He wasn't an academic in any traditional sense," Jim Linnell, dean of fine arts, said with a laugh. "He was a provocateur and a satirist. Having Digby in an academic program kept things lively, challenging and constantly pushing the boundaries of getting work done."
In 2005, Wolfe and his wife moved to a small town in Ontario, Canada, where Patricia worked as a chaplain at an institution for the criminally insane and where Wolfe taught a writing class as a volunteer. They moved back to Albuquerque in 2010.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sister, Hilary Hammond-Williams.