sock it to them: laughing last in our discontent

Laugh-In. canned laughter and forced hip….

Art Chantry (

In the mid to late 1960′s, the psychedelic underground revolution had already started to wane. it was a literal flash-in-the-pan. All of the original pioneers had morphed into varying sorts of hacks and quacks, pushing new agendas as far fetched as buddhism, meditation, world domination, the internet and flying saucers. Basically, the acid world was as unstable as the drug itself. Old doses of blotter acid have short half-lives and lose their potency fast. Vintage blotter acid collectors (yes, there is a huge market for old acid collectors) probably couldn’t get high if they ate their entire collections. So goes the culture as well.

Whenever an underground counterculture (a rebellion against some established norm) erupts, there is usually a pushback from the mainstream. The first is ‘attack’ (“them dirty stnkin’ hippies should al be shot”) and then there is the ‘assimilation’ (“gee, that paisley looks so cool on you!”).

Back in the romantic rebellion of the 1800′s there emerged a back-to-nature movement that resulted in the arts and crafts revival and a rejection of the established artistic norms. This rejection of the status quo happens with such periodic intensity, you could probably set a clock by it. During this phase, the reaction was heavily against the industrial revolution.

In fact, the entire ‘victorian style’ was athe mass produced manufactured style. It was a highly decorative and shallow ‘pretty’ look that was cranked out by industry to sell status to the mainstream. Good taste that is affordable. Homogeny. The response from the avant-guard was almost identical to today – total rejection.

The initial poroces of “no” was simply returning to the hand made. This included an embrace of nature forms that was intellectually and emotionally antithetical to the Victorian style. Instead of iron deer in the front yard, you had real deer simple, eh? the immediate result was a re-birth of organic design and the arts and crafts movement. People literally returned to the woods to live like wildmen (at least ‘wild’ from their stilted persepctive).

Of course, industry – powered by the fast buck – saw opportunity and attempted to copycat the new romantic look. The result was ‘art nouveau’ – a homespun manufactured style applied as decoration (just like victorian motifs). The big difference was the curve. The art nouveau manufactured style almost appeared to have been grown on a machine like some iron planting.

Soon, new discoveries in Egypt and Meso-America resulted in another semi-rejection. The ancient ‘primitive man’ geometric stylings as seen in king tut’s tomb and the newly ‘discovered’ cultures of the Mayans and the Aztecs resulted in a quick adaptation to the new art nouveau style (and so much easier to make with a machine). The result was art deco.

AC:this is that centerspread from this copy of 'laugh-in' magazine that so threw me. it is completely anti and aggro to the mainstream, the underground and ev

hing this little magazine is trying to exploit. it's some sort of commentary made by some little alienated designer geek who really doesn't believe in what he's doing. and he's letting us all know it.

Soon art nouveau looked old fashioned and art deco became the new rage of the machine society. Walden Pond gave way to Metropolis. The resulting mechanised world wars did more to end that dream than any artistic rejection ever could.

Flash forward to the early post WW2 period in amercia. displaced vets can’t fit into the new peace time America. Uniformity is valued and loose cannons are depicted in popular media as communist threats to the social order. The beat, biker culture, surfers, hotrodders, truckers, abstract expressionist painters, poets and bop musicians were the new bohemia and they were derided as decadent trash. But the seeds of rejection they sewed took fruit in the early-mid 60′s, just as the international modern stylings of the new space age and the ‘big idea’ advertsing culture combined with industrial ingenuity to create a new golden era of conformity and high style. “OO7, meet Helvetica Bold…”

But, the outsider subcultures were still there, developing their own aesthetic systems, not too dissimilar to the romantics of the previous century. A new ‘back to nature’ dream and a rebirth of the ‘community of man’ emerged, albeit in scattered pockets. When the psychedelic culture emerged, a ‘real’ alternative to the exiting dominant culture became a reality. It’s been said that with the hippies “many puddle became a pond” and soon many many ponds became a lake,” then an ocean. Then a tidal wave…

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They high art style of this new ‘psychedelic’ look was so heavily borrowed from early art nouveau masterworks that it was almost an embarrassment. Wes Wilson found typography by a famous arts & crafts typographer (whose name escapes me at the moment) and placed it on a waving baseline – and invented ‘psychedelic lettering!’. Stanley Mouse began to ape Beardsley. Another artist copy-catted alphonse mucha posters to a ‘T’. Rick Griffin followed the hand drawn line work of scores of Blake imitators and shoved it through surfing and acid to arrive at his incredibly ‘organic’ style.

So, the psychedlic syle was an lsd-washed version of art nouveau. Even the communal movement owed it’s origins to Walden dreams. It was history repeating itself all over again, but this time in mindblowing colors.

Of course, industry was still there, cranking out their version of what they think they can sell. Whenever a new ‘culture’ emerges and finds popular appeal to the young, the markeing monsters are right there ready to go with their mass-produced version fo the same thing. But, they never get it quite right. The very industrial design process removes the ‘natural’ content and replaces it with uniform mediocrity. So, the fake psych look literally replace the larger mainstream culture’s very idea of what psychedelia is and was.

Along came ‘industrial psychedlia’ or (as i prefer) ‘hallmark psychedelia” (becasue hallmark greeting cards tried so hard for so long to co-opt the style). It was bright colors, swirling everything, cartoon characters, goofy humor and toitally innocent fun. Basically, the exact opposite of the seriousness of the hippie movement and it’s goals.

This new Hallmark psych look became so prevalent that it eventually replaced REAL psychedleia in the popular conciousness. When the average person thinks’ psychedelic’ they are actually bringing to mind the fake look, not the real style. It’s like Peter Max on one end of the ‘authentic’ spectrum and Rick Griffin on the other end. One was totally faked and the other beyond heartfelt.

One of the foremost promoters of the “hip new young look” of psychedleia was the short lived, but extraordinarily popular comedy television show called “laugh-in” (actually hosted by two old school borscht belt comics named dan rowan and dick martin). It was only on the air for, maybe, three seasons, but it’s mark was revolutionary. It’s impact changed our popular sensibility as much as Saturday Night Live did throughout it’s many incarnations.

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This little magazine cover (terribly beat-up) is one of my favorite examples of ‘hallmark pscyedelia”. It’s totally contrived by mainstream thinking. Professional trained ‘graphic designers’ created this homage to the psychedelia they saw the young folks sporting in the streets. It is a completely false remake, a ‘bootleg’ of the popular underground psych stylings. It’s as perfect in it’s new interpretation as the Peter Max poster or those hallmark greeting cards – beautiful glorious krap kulture. The heart blood of American style.

However, it (like all art styles) are defined by their lack of permanence. Even though this worked – and worked in spades. When we think of the hippie era, we think of this look, but, on the inside of the magazine, you can see it already starting to change. The cartoon work feels like MAD magazine (because that’s what they knew). It still attempts to ape the first retro-monster stylings of push pin studios and it’s illustrators like Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and John Alcorn (especially). But, the artist buried in every graphic designers keeps trying to push the envelope.

The color centerspread I reproduce ( second image) is a shock. When I first saw it I stopped dead in my tracks. This was ‘hallmark psychedelia”? It was so out of place in this magazine that it stood out like a giant sore thumb. Some designer/cartoonist/art director or whatever was having some fun, here. They were screwing around and pushing a few envelopes.

--- The resulting cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was blamed on a "blasphemous" piece of satire by comedian David Steinberg, but the Nixon White House and their allies had been searching for an excuse to pull the plug on Tom Smothers for a while. It appears that one of the people prodding the President to do so was the most unlikely of confidants: the head writer of Laugh-In. Laugh-In is commonly considered a reflection of the late sixties youth sensibility, but closer examination reveals a much different picture. It was, in essence, an establishment show, profiting from the anti-establishment sentiment running through America. Moderated by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Laugh-In was old in style, but draped in the popular fashion of the day. It effectively garnered a genuine hippie aesthetic, but any actual connection to the counterculture was mostly smoke and mirrors. The bulk of Laugh-In consisted of irrelevant vaudeville bits that ignored the war, the draft, the riots and the protest. It embraced the look and sound of the hippies and had no problem making references to getting high, but when it came to the major issues, it lacked substance. Whereas Tom Smothers found himself on Nixon's enemies list, Rowan and Martin found themselves on Nixon's guest list. Hal Erickson was correct in his assessment that "compared to the approach of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In treaded very, very lightly, especially when commenting upon America's untenable position in Vietnam." Laugh-In creator George Schlatter explains that his show "had a real cross section of writers. Paul was seriously right-wing ... He was so far right he did cartwheels ... Paul Keyes ... Nixon's joke writer." In 1969 Dan Rowan said of Laugh-In's chief scribe, "President Nixon calls him four or five times a week and when he's in San Clemente, Paul's always there. He is very close to the administration on a personal and on a political basis." A generation of vociferous anti-Nixonites, enraptured by everything Laugh-In had to offer each Monday night, was none the wiser.---click for more

The high contrast photos (thanks to stat cameras and early xerox) are peppered throughout. But the strips of typography plastered in fans (containing dumb jokes) is meant to echo the spastic delivery style of the TV show itself. Even the clip art is Victorian in style – a direct contrast to everything hippie. But, it winds up echoing typographers like Robert Massin and other European modernists. This person also knew about Surrealism and Dada as well.

This is early early punk. A real nasty “FU” to the reader and the art inspiration and the management and mainstream style. It’s a rejection of the rejection. It’s an attempt to crank aginst the tide and go somewhere new. It uses bold, ugly, harsh and offensice color and appearance as a big in-your-face joke. It distills the essence of what made Laugh-In and even the hippie culture appealing in the first place. First you must tear it down before you can build. Charming, eh?

The rebellion of art is still lurking, waiting, stewing. It’s ready to strike anywhere, anytime. We may all be laughing in our discontent, but you’d better watch out. I think it’s coming again.


Laugh-In debuted on January 22, 1968. The show’s format was conceived by George Schlatter and featured an odd melding of fast editing in the vintage Olsen and Johnson Hellzapoppin’ milieu alongside a colorful “Summer of Love” design. The hosts were the comedy team Rowan and Martin, who had been busily plodding through show business with minor success. The duo was considered increasingly archaic by the youth movement; an outdated expression of Rat Pack tuxedo cool that embraced scotch over marijuana, sexism rather than liberation. Regardless, the blinding fast edits of girls with flowers painted on their bodies was enough to convince many undiscerning young hippie kids that this was the show for them. “George Schlatter wanted Digby Wolfe for head writer,” remembered Dick Martin. “We said, ‘No, no, no, no. No way.’ We knew him. We once hired him for a hundred dollars a week to write political humor for us, for nightclubs, but we couldn’t use any of it. Because it wasn’t funny. Digby Wolfe was out right away … We brought in Paul Keyes from The Dean Martin Show … we insisted that he be the head writer.” And contrary to the earnest insistence of some, Laugh-In was innocuous as far as political satire was concerned. Read More:

….The “sock it to me” bit in question was conceived for Laugh-In’s 1968-69 season premiere, less than two months before election day. “He would do anything to get elected,” says George Schlatter. “Paul Keyes convinced him that it was good for his image to appear in the midst of this kind of avalanche, this tsunami of youth and vitality.” Erickson explained that Nixon “showed up surrounded by his staff, whom he consulted about everything. Asked to say [Laugh-In catchphrase] ‘What’s a bippy?’ Nixon huddled with his entourage and decided against it – he didn’t know what ‘bippy’ meant, and really didn’t want to find out. Likewise vetoed was ‘Good Night, Dick.’ After much deliberation, ‘Sock it to me?’ was the one Dick Nixon finally approved.” It aired September 16, 1968. Schlatter recalls the afternoon with trepidation and not just because it was difficult to direct the cardboard candidate. “It took six takes before Nixon was able to deliver the line without sounding angry or offended. People say that we were responsible for electing Richard Nixon. It was so close – and by showing him in that [fashion] with that audience, it may have elected him. I’ve had to live with that for thirty-eight fucking years.” Nixon received the standard fee routinely doled out to guests of the show, a pleasant two hundred and ten dollars, which was deposited directly into his campaign coffers. “Lena Horne once kicked me in the shin,” remembered Dick Martin. “[She] said, ‘You son of a bitch, you elected that bastard!’ But we also offered the same thing to Hubert Humphrey a week later … his adviser said … He said to Humphrey – and I heard him say this, ‘They’ll end up throwing water on you.’ Like we’re gonna throw water on a fucking presidential candidate. Absurd. That dumb son of a bitch!”

A commercial break on that very episode featured a “Nixon for President” campaign spot. The purchase of that advertisement in a top-rated time slot, shortly after the impressionable cameo, was shrewd. Scholarship remains undecided about whether the “sock it to me” bit actually pushed Nixon over the top, but the argument is largely irrelevant. Nixon’s “sock it to me” was simply the culmination of a year’s worth of work orchestrated by Paul Keyes and his savvy team of media manipulators… Read More:

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