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George Schlatter: Enduring Ability to Produce Laughs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Schlatter is doing something he does very well--handling celebrities, who on this night include Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Jon Voight, Geena Davis, Faye Dunaway and Ed Norton. The occasion is the taping of the American Film Institute tribute to Dustin Hoffman, which airs on ABC in the spring. Schlatter, the executive producer, is backstage in a Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom, commuting from green room to monitor. Dressed in a tux, he hardly seems uptight. These shows basically run themselves, his body language says, no matter how much the stars blow off the TelePrompTer and any other stage direction.

Schlatter’s is a well-earned remove. The man, after all, has been producing shows like this since 1960, when he did specials overseas with Dinah Shore. From there, his resume reads like the history of the variety-tribute show. Scratching the surface, there was “Goldie & Liza Together” (1980), “Humor & The Presidency” (1987) and the “Sammy Davis Jr. 60th Anniversary Celebration” (1989), to say nothing of the eight specials with Danny Thomas, the breakthrough series “Real People,” the 80th-birthday salute to Frank Sinatra, and his ongoing baby, the American Comedy Awards, the 13th installment of which airs Monday night at 8 on Fox.

“George really is [P.T.] Barnum,” says Digby Wolfe, who was a writer on Schlatter’s most famous series, “Laugh-In,” the zany, quick-hit sketch show that aired from 1968 to ’73.

“He really is that kind of personality, banging the drum, walk up, walk up.”

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“There isn’t a person in this business he hasn’t worked with or directed or pushed around,” adds comic Tim Conway, who boasts that he and Schlatter teamed for the shortest-lived show ever, the 1969 sketch comedy “Turn-On,” canceled after one episode.

Bruce Vilanch, who has known Schlatter for 20 years, during which he’s served as a writer on countless variety shows and specials, calls the producer “the master star wrangler” for the way he can pull in celebrities for his various projects.

“George doesn’t even get mugged with B-names,” Vilanch says of the incident last June in which Schlatter was out walking in Beverly Hills with a group that included old friend Barbara Sinatra when they were attacked by thieves.

A Zelig-like Career

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To be sure, when it comes to show business, Schlatter has had a Zelig-like career. There is the story he tells of his brief stint as executive producer of “The Judy Garland Show” on CBS (he was soon fired and replaced by director Norman Jewison). This was in 1963-64, when Garland was making something of a comeback.

One day, Schlatter says, Garland “was [complaining] about the lights or something,” so he started singing “Over the Rainbow.”

“What are you doing?” Garland said.

“I just thought if you were going to produce, I’d sing,” Schlatter said.

Some 35 years later, Schlatter is still in the game, even though the game has drastically changed. Cable has virtually killed the variety show, and the tributes and specials that used to feel like events have lost some of their luster with saturation.

And yet here is Schlatter, currently in the second of a three-year deal with Fox to executive produce the American Comedy Awards, a show he produced for 11 years on ABC. To Schlatter, the awards serve as annual reparations for that most ignored but noble of show business creature--the comedian.

On Monday’s show, which begins with “Frasier” co-star David Hyde Pierce doing a rap song about therapy accompanied by a string quartet, viewers will see award presentations for best male and female stand-up comic and best guest spot on a series, among others. Barry Levinson, the comedy writer (“High Anxiety”) and director (“Rain Man”), will be honored with a lifetime creative achievement award.

True to the axiom that if you give them an award they will show up, the stars are in evidence at the ceremony. This is not as true, however, of the home viewer. Last year, the show ranked 90th out of 117 shows, according to Nielsen Media Research, after enduring record-low ratings the year before, with viewers no doubt suffering from awards-show burnout.

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Schlatter, meanwhile, says he gets a kick out of playing host to the best in the funny business.

“To have Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory and Phyllis Diller sitting there laughing along with Garry Shandling and David Duchovny and Zubin Mehta and Arianna Huffington . . . made me feel really good,” he said.

With his encyclopedic knowledge of comedians, Schlatter is a vast resource. A discussion that starts on Pryor’s canny use of profanity (the swear word wasn’t the punch line, but a means to the punch line, Schlatter notes) snakes its way through the contemporary field. The success of political comedian and “60 Minutes II” correspondent Jimmy Tingle “is good for comedy.” On Chris Rock: “I wish he went a little deeper.” On “Saturday Night Live”: “ ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ idea of political satire is to dress up John Goodman as Linda Tripp.”

Framed photographs are everywhere at the offices of George Schlatter Productions on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles--including the one of his wife, Jolene, back when she worked on “The Ernie Kovacs Show” (“She’s the one in the beard,” Schlatter says, directing you to the photo).

Schlatter himself (he won’t give his age, saying only: “I’m the youngest of the old guard”) began with a low-level job at MCA before eventually rising to head of publicity. He became an agent, then left to book comedians and singers at Ciro’s in Hollywood, bringing in people like Bobby Short, Dorothy Dandridge and Lenny Bruce. He moved into TV when he took a similar job on “The Dinah Shore Show” in 1960.

All of this history gives Schlatter a certain standing among younger television executives today, even if there’s a prevailing bias that the writers and producers of Schlatter’s era are out of step.

Schlatter insists ageism has nothing to do with the fact that he doesn’t have a series on the air. Instead, he points to the sorry state of comedy in prime time--specifically, the network infatuation with putting comics in sitcoms and nothing else, save for the sketch shows currently on the air and Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.”

To Schlatter, these make a small dent in a large problem. Why, Schlatter asks, isn’t television cultivating a new generation of the talented players he had on “Laugh-In"--the Arte Johnsons and Ruth Buzzis and Henry Gibsons?

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“The industry is totally permeated with the sitcom mentality,” he says. “We’ve done nothing to replenish the gene pool. And only a certain number of writers are approved to do these sitcoms.

“Where is satirical, political comedy?” he adds. “Why are there only Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher and occasionally Letterman saying something?”

Schlatter has been saying this for years, during which he’s tried to sell something like a “Laugh-In” to the networks. Last year he had a pilot, “Prime Time Comedy,” at NBC, and there was 1994’s “She TV,” an hourlong sketch show that lasted for a month on ABC.

“He still manages to keep up vibrant connections with the network,” says Ted Harbert, the DreamWorks executive who worked on various specials and variety hours with Schlatter when he was ABC Entertainment chief. “He’s part of that legendary group.”

Schlatter concedes that the climate is hardly right to take the kind of shots at the establishment that his writers did on “Laugh-In.” It’s the same wrinkle in the political climate that has networks ordering shows with broad sexual content while balking at programs that would, say, present a genuinely bigoted character like Archie Bunker.

In the face of all of these depressing signs, however, Schlatter says this is a great time to be working in comedy. No better time, really. In fact, he says, we’re at the dawn of a new era. At the cusp of an exciting time.

Call it Schlatter being Schlatter. Banging the drum. Walk up, walk up.


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