Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Quiet Kind of Comedian

The stock company on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In became instant successes when the show debuted in 1968, even though many of them had been around for quite some time.

One of the sparkplugs on the show was Arte Johnson, who seemed to have come out of nowhere, but had been appearing on various sitcoms for over a decade. His talents were recognised in 1963 when it was announced he and Marie Wilson would star in the comedy My Son, The Witch Doctor on CBS (a pilot was made but the show wasn’t picked up).

Johnson started as a stand-up comic. Variety reviewed his act thusly in its New York edition of January 20, 1954:
12 Mins.
Le Ruban Bleu, N.Y.
Arte Johnson looks like a quiet kind of comedian, being small and bespectacled. His approach to his work is also in that vein, but he does give out in bravura style at times, and he becomes a performer who must get maximum attention because he brings in a few surprises. Johnson, at the present state of his development, shouldn't be seen on the slum side of Fifth Ave. His satires are geared for the intime trade as the humor he purveys couldn't be appreciated readily in the mass spots. He has a piece on "Gus the Gopher" and a satire on old songs which register strongly. The intellectual aura surrounding his work frequently appears smart-alecky. Nonetheless, he seems to have a solid basis for development and further experience around the circuits should widen his employment horizons. Jose.
From that, he ended up with a supporting role on Janis Page’s TV show It’s Always Jan the following year.

Newspapers jumped to profile the Laugh-In cast after the show rang up huge Monday night ratings. Here are a couple of pieces about Arte Johnson. First up is one from March 23, 1968 from an undisclosed syndication service.
Like You, He Loves ‘Laugh-In’

HOLLYWOOD – It's doubtful; if anybody who loves the satirical, biting humor of NBC-TV's “Rowan and Martin Laugh-In” could possibly enjoy it as much as the performers themselves.
Listen to Arte Johnson's thoughts:
“We have a ball! I've been in this business a long time and never have I seen such compatibility,” says the little comedian who does everything in the series. “Somehow there's a totality of respect among us. I've never been as enthusiastic and satisfied with an end result.
“We critique each other. But we're highly protective of each other, from top to bottom. George (producer George Schlatter) babies and coddles us to hold us in control. We're like a high-paid force of spear carriers.”
Arte, understandably, is in orbit over his present status. He's had some lean years in show business when it was more profitable to sell clothes than make people laugh. It wasn't easy on the ego to peddle threads after you've experienced the magnetism of Broadway productions like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “No Time for Sergeants.” He also had parts in the Hennessey, Joan Caulfield and Janis Paige series; guest roles with Danny Thomas. Red Skelton and Dick Van Dyke, and did voices in dozens of commercials.
“You ask how we come up with ideas,” continued Arte, when writing became the subject. “Our writers are terrific. Not only them, but Ruth Buzzi, Larry Hovis, Henry Gibson—all of us—suggest ideas.
“I used to do a Russian folk singer at parties. I told the writers about it. They came up with a bit for him. We took it to George and he said, ‘You're all crazy, but keep it short.’ That's always his main comment.
“So, using a lot of double-talk, I've done Pyotr Rosmenko twice in wild situations. Sammy Davis called me and said he fell to the floor laughing. He wants to do it with me.”
Arte most of the mail they receive is highly favourable. But the extremists have a field day.
“Oh yes, we get a lot of no-nos,” he agreed. “We get all kinds of ‘How dare yous’ from anti-Semites, political observers. Communists, what have you. One line can set them off.
“One woman wrote, ‘How can I explain this to my 4-year-old?’ What's to explain to a 4-year-old?” laughs Arte.
“But the classic was a woman who said she couldn't begin to tell us how disgusted she was. She claimed her teen-age daughter was ‘hep’—not hip—but she, too, thought what we did was disgraceful.
“She closed with, ‘If this keeps up we'll have to turn off the set. We shall be forced to talk to each other.’”
Laugh-In was quickly renewed for the 1968-69 season. A few cast members—including Ben Wrigley, Larry Hovis, Roddy Maude-Roxby and Eileen Brennan—disappeared and new ones came on board. Johnson remained one of the mainstays; he had enough characters that hadn’t worn out their welcome yet. The AP wire service’s New York entertainment columnist profiled Johnson in a feature story that appeared in papers starting April 4, 1969. The version below in the Appleton Post-Crescent took up a full page with a large montage of Johnson in various Laugh-In guises.
"Ve-r-ry Int-er-esting" Phrase Vaults Arte Johnson to Fame

The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) – Arte Johnson may not be the tallest man in show business, but the bespectacled elf of the "Laugh-In" regulars is a giant among red-blooded he-men: he works needlepoint during airplane flights and he doesn't care who sees him.
"Nobody gets giggly because tailors know how to sew," he pointed out. "I have to take a lot of commercial flights and flying is a bore. You—or at least I—can't dig into a book or magazine and I can't sleep. One day my wife was with me and she pulled out her needlepoint and sewed happily all the way to New York. That's how I got started and it makes the time fly.
"Sure, people look at me, but once they've gotten over the shock, they—particularly men passengers—are interested."
Arte, 5 feet 3 and, despite his 40 years, looking like a mischievous teen-ager, burst into the public's consciousness less than two years ago with the first "Laugh-In," an NBC special. When it became a weekly series in January, 1968, he was playing on a regular basis a leering Nazi soldier with one line: "Ver-ry int-er-esting." It became a national catch phrase.
Since then he has appeared on a regular basis as a tottering masher, popularly called "the old letch" who weekly gets bashed on the head by Ruth Buzzi's reticule, and as an earnest little Russian. In all, though, he has appeared in 38 other characterizations that have been shown a few times.
Johnson is another of a long string of overnight successes with a long training and waiting period behind him. He has been a comedian-in-waiting for almost 20 years.
"When George (producer George Schlatter) called about an idea he had for Rowan and Martin," said Johnson, "I was doing very well making commercials. I was happy and rich and I didn't want to give it up.
"George told me what he was thinking about, and I thought he must be out of his mind—but it sounded like fun so I said, what the hell, I'd do the special."
Since "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" jumped immediately to No. 1 position in the Nielsens and remains the most popular weekly show, it has affected the form and substance of the regular variety hours. They've picked up pace, gone in for quick sight gags, one-liners, and the imitators are around. blackouts, of course.
Johnson, who like most comedians is deadly serious about his job, says he does not think the imitations hurt, but rather enhance, the original. "We have the technique; we have developed the timing," he says. "So we have a big edge."
Most of Arte's characters are old friends he has developed during the night club years. When he first pulled Rosmenko, his little Russian, out of his trunk, he went to the Salvation Army to find that magnificently malfitted pin-striped suit and black-and-white shoes he wears.
"Now we've had to have a couple of suits made," he said ''And it cost an awful lot of money to have it copied."
He grew up in the Midwest, studied journalism at the University of Illinois, and even spent some time as a press agent in New York. His strangely spelled first name, Arte—pronounced Art-ie—came when he found he could not use his real name, Arthur Johnson, professionally because it already belonged to a production singer in Las Vegas. So he chose Art E. Johnson—and that became Arte by a printer's error on a program.
Johnson and his second wife, Gisela, are apartment dwellers in Hollywood and pursue passionately in their leisure time a variety of hobbies that at first blush, seem typical of a comedian. Johnson, for instance, is a collector—and something of an expert—on porcelains and Georgian silver.
After all his years in show business, he became a widely recognized personality realizing full well that he had traded his right to privacy for star status. "I really have no complaints and no hang-ups," he said. "I admit that the amount of recognition you get in restaurants, for instance, sometimes interferes with what you really want to do, like eat. But I come into their homes and they have a right. But when Gisela and I wanted to take a real vacation, we found a small private place in Hawaii and not a soul bugged us for autographs."
What next?
"Well, of course I hope to have my own show," he said. "During this vacation we're going to make a pilot for a half-hour variety show."
Incidentally, the name of his production company is Rosmenko Productions, which sort of suggests that the little Russian is his favorite character.
Laugh-In, as fads tend to do, lost steam and Johnson bailed after an Emmy and four seasons. Johnson’s career, though, didn’t lose steam. He hosted a comedy special in 1971. He found a new career voicing cartoons, while still appearing on camera (including the film Love At First Bite) and racking up good-paying commercial voice-over work. Variety’s “quiet kind of comedian” made a loud impact on television.

1 comment:

  1. The appearance with Danny Thomas came very early in Artie's career, 12 years prior to "Laugh-In", where he was playing a teenage singer who really wasn't all that excited about singing (the episode's on YouTube).