Question: Could you please tell me and my lunch buddies who played the guy in the yellow raincoat on Laugh-In who rode a tricycle that usually tipped over? My friends say it was Arte Johnson. I say it was just about anyone, since you couldn't see their face. Am I wrong or was this one of the ensemble players? Please let me know soon; my trivia kingdom may be crumbling. — B.D. English, Freedom, Pa.
Televisionary: Your trivia kingdom stands strong, B.D. For the definitive answer on this I went straight to the source, former Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In executive producer George Schlatter, who said the wacky Johnson was but one of the people who donned the slicker for the oft-repeated tricycle pratfall. According to Schlatter, it was often Johnson, castmate Alan Sues or a variety of assorted cameramen or crew members.
Schlatter said the gag got started when he sent a crew out with a bunch of toys to shoot some sight gags and told them to take a raincoat along since the forecast called for showers. As luck would have it, the crew member riding the tricycle tipped over and the long-lived joke was born. Exactly which kind of luck it was depends on whom you ask, by the way, since that pioneering daredevil injured himself in the initial spill. "It was an accident and the guy did get hurt," Schlatter conceded. "But it was so funny, we kept on doing it."
It turned out that the first victim was the only one — nobody else was hurt shooting that bit — but the boss man knew enough to let others face the danger. "The only one who never did it was me — I was rich, but I wasn't stupid," Schlatter joked.
He "wasn't stupid" by a TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory as "a genuine, ingenuous breath of fresh fare" that, during its 1968-73 run on NBC, took the country by storm and added more catch-phrases to the pop-culture lexicon than just about any other in TV history. ("Sock it to me?" "You bet your bippy?" "Here come de judge?" All popularized by Laugh-In.)
Of course, exactly who came up with which part of the show has never quite been settled. Co-hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, who worked a lot of tiny venues in a lot of tiny towns for very little money before hitting it big with Laugh-In, insisted it was based on a 1963 pilot they did for ABC. ("The guts of this show came from our 17 years of hard work in the toilets of America. We finally got a chance to stand up and say, 'Here's what we do,'" Rowan told TV Guide in 1970.) Schlatter, on the other hand, claimed he developed it with That Was the Week That Was alum Digby Wolfe. The truth lays somewhere in between.
To the cast, of course, it didn't matter who thought it up — what counted was that they were working. "Today, I'm doing most of the same characters I did 19, 20 years ago," Johnson, whose "verrrrrry interesting" German soldier and lecherous old man became icons of the day, said in 1969. "I'm no more or less funny, no more or less talented than I was then. But only now, because there is a show like Laugh-In, is it all paying off. Suddenly I hear about producers asking for an 'Arte Johnson type,' the same people who weren't interested in the original Arte Johnson."
The most negative take on the celebrity created by the show came from "sock it to me" gal Judy Carne, who, after taking countless buckets of water and boxing gloves to the mug, declared it all "a big bloody bore." But even she had to admit in 1972 that leaving after two years was a mistake. "I was emotionally involved and disturbed and I felt I had to go," she said of that decision. "Now I can sit back and view things, and I realize it was not too smart a move."It was Laugh-In player Jo Anne Worley who offered the key reason for a "look-at-me" perfomer-type to stay on the exhausting show and slog through the long hours, though. "Halfway through the first season, Goldie [Hawn] and I decided that we weren't getting anywhere," she recalled. "Then one day we went shopping together, and we were mobbed. That changed our minds!"