Whatever else he may have been, Richard M. Nixon wasn’t generally known as a comedian. So many American TV viewers were surprised 50 years ago to see the Republican presidential nominee pop up on the hit comedy show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
The date was September 16, 1968, less than a month after the turbulent riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and two months before the November elections. Nixon’s appearance was brief, about five seconds in all, but memorable. Like a long list of Laugh-In guests, he looked straight into the camera and delivered one of the show’s trademark phrases, “Sock it to me!” Even after a reported six takes, it sounded more like “Sock it to me?”—as if Nixon himself couldn’t believe he was saying it.
Nixon, who famously distrusted the media, chose his TV appearances carefully. According to the Associated Press, he hadn’t been on either “Face the Nation” or “Meet the Press” in two years. His aides reportedly advised against appearing on “Laugh-In,” too, given its liberal attitudes toward subjects like sex, recreational drug use and the war in Vietnam.
But Nixon went on anyway, talked into it by Paul Keyes, a “Laugh-In” writer who happened to be a close friend. Keyes thought the cameo would soften Nixon’s humorless image and win him votes in what was promising to be a close election. Keyes might also have mentioned that “Laugh-In” was the most-watched show on TV, reaching close to a third of U.S. households.
Even then, Nixon didn’t drop his guard. Offered a different “Laugh-In” line, “You bet your sweet bippy,” he rejected it, concerned that “bippy” might mean something naughty. His retinue of handlers also made sure that he didn’t appear as pale and sweaty as he had in his disastrous 1960 TV debate with John F. Kennedy. They posed him in a dignified gray-blue suit against a plain brown backdrop—not one of the colorful mod set designs the show was known for. Unlike “Laugh-In” cast members and other guest stars who delivered the line, Nixon wasn’t doused by water, dropped through a trap door, bombarded with marshmallows or subjected to any additional indignities—much as some in the audience might have enjoyed it.
“Laugh-In” producers offered Nixon’s Democratic opponent, Hubert H. Humphrey, equal time on their show, but Humphrey declined, supposedly considering it undignified. He did, however, appear on the Dick Clark music show “It’s Happening,” where he was interviewed by the teen heartthrob Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders.
Whether Nixon knew it or not, the phrase he’d chosen was, at best, ambiguous. “Sock it to” is believed to have first appeared in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889, where it meant delivering a devastating conversational retort. In later uses it became the equivalent of “give it to me” or “tell it to me straight,” among other things.
But by 1968, it had taken on clear sexual overtones, with songs like Mitch Ryder’s Top 40 hit “Sock It to Me, Baby!” in 1967 and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Wild Thing” that same year. Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit “Respect,” originally written by Otis Redding, had added the line as a chorus.
Nixon went on to win the 1968 election by the narrow margin of 510,000 votes (out of nearly 73 million votes cast), and many commentators suggested that his five seconds on “Laugh-In” made the difference. “It elected Richard Nixon,” said George Schlatter, the show’s mastermind and producer in an interview years later for the Archive of American Television.
“Now you can’t have an election without the candidates going on every show in sight,” Schlatter added. “But at that point it was revolutionary.”
Nearly a decade later, in 1977, Schlatter would extend a second invitation to Nixon, this time for a “Laugh-In” reunion special. In the years since his first appearance, Nixon had been elected president twice, then forced to resign in disgrace when faced with impeachment.
Schlatter wanted Nixon to deliver the line, “Ten years ago I appeared on ‘Laugh-In’ and invited the American people to sock it to me. You can stop now.”
Alas, reported the Associated Press, Nixon didn’t reply.