Perhaps the most long-lasting and influential moment in Laugh-In’s incredibly successful five-year run, however, was that cameo appearance by presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon in 1968.
It wasn’t very funny by modern standards, but Nixon’s stilted delivery of the show’s signature catchphrase “sock it to me” was part of a revolutionary effort to reach out to younger voters, taken against the advice of Nixon’s campaign managers.
The show’s title, Laugh-In, referenced the sit-ins and be-ins of the Civil Rights and hippie movements. Laugh-In’s creators Dan Rowan and Dick Martin updated the traditional vaudeville show to give it a modern flare. Like its CBS peer The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In spoke to its politically aware, and socially conscious audience with rapid-fire one-liners.
The memorable set design, the mainstay of the show, was a summer of love-styled joke wall painted with brightly-colored psychedelic designs and flowers. Actors swung open doors to deliver their quips and one-liners, most of them barely able to control their laughs. But it was the faux news segments and the comedy sketches involving bumbling judges and police officers that with a wink and a nod challenged traditional forms of authority.
So why did the straight-laced, establishment candidate Nixon appear on this wild, countercultural program? Nixon had famously flubbed his television personality test in the groundbreaking 1960 Presidential debate, the first ever broadcast on network television. Compared to the young, telegenic John F. Kennedy, Nixon, who was recovering from illness and exhausted from a weekend spent campaigning, looked pallid and sweaty. Eight years later, Nixon, who never again participated in a televised debate, was eager to project a better image on the small screen.
Laugh-In writer Paul Keyes, a fervent Nixon supporter and media adviser, convinced the candidate to make the brief cameo while campaigning in Los Angeles. At first, Keyes suggested Nixon could make a reference to the show’s catchphrase “you bet your sweet bippy,” but the candidate wasn’t having any of it.