Wednesday, 12 April 2017

She Always Knew It Was Comedy

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was pretty much an overnight success after NBC plopped it into its schedule on Monday, January 22, 1968. The show’s supporting cast was considered an overnight success, too, (“Yesterday, they were unknown,” read a Boston Globe story) but they had all paid their dues in show biz for a number of years.

Jo Anne Worley had been a regular on a few TV shows after starting out in a Billy Barnes revue in the late ‘50s. It played 48 weeks in Los Angeles before jaunting to New York. She was a player in Merv Griffin’s cast in one of his talk show efforts, got a part in Bill Dana’s ill-fated Las Vegas talk show on Ollie Treye’s “fourth network,” and had appeared on one of Joey Bishop’s sitcoms. Of course, none of them had the impact of Laugh-In.

The press had a few stories on Worley from before she hit it big; some were in the Indianapolis Star, as she was from Indiana. That’s where this first story comes from, in the issue of December 4, 1966.

SINCE JO ANNE WORLEY packed her dreams and left Lowell, Ind., the town has never had it so good.
Miss Worley, through her zany, nostalgic comedy, has put Lowell on national television alongside Mount Idy and Waukegan, into night clubs from coast to coast and into the columns of major newspapers. Through it all, Lowell, as Jo Anne might wryly remark, has maintained its bucolic lackluster.
Not so Miss Worley. She has changed from the young woman who cried herself to sleep during her first two months of "show biz" into a confident, long-lashed bouffanted performer who out-brasses New Yorkers. She has changed from a girl as unknown as Lowell itself, to a Broadway personality, recognized on the street, met by fans in the dressing room and toasted as a member of Merv Griffin's TV family.
Hometown Recognition
Even the folks in Lowell (southern Lake County) are awakening to the harangue of Jo Anne's husky voice and are commenting by mail (some of which may find its way into Worley routines).
"I get back to Lowell seldom, usually only when I go coast to coast or when I work Chicago," says Jo Anne.
Her family still lives in Lowell. Otherwise, there's little reason to return.
Jo Anne never captured a part in a Lowell High School play, although she appeared in some all-school skits. Yet, ironically, Lowell High has presented a Jo Anne Worley drama award since 1964.
"I was thrown out of Glee Club for being too gleeful," Jo Anne recalls.
She was chosen Comedienne of her freshman class, but the honor went to others thereafter.
During her Lowell years, Jo Anne was quiet about show business dreams, alluding vaguely to nursing and teaching and other unflamboyant careers.
"I always knew," she says, "but in Lowell you don't say that. Even my folks didn't know. But I always knew it was comedy."
And so it is.
In the cast of the off-Broadway Mad Show, Jo Anne romps through charades on the human parade based on Mad Magazine, frantic enough to make Alfred E. Neumann himself ask: "Who, me?"
To audiences at Upstairs at the Duplex, a darkly painted club in Greenwich Village which she calls "this darling dark cradle," she offers samplings of her wit, complete with a foot-square cigarette lighter, a four-foot strand of red glass beads and a copy of the Lowell Tribune. She may tell them about her Lowell farmer boy friend, who picked her up in a McCormick Reaper, wore white overalls and was known as Lawrence of Lowell.
"The World's Greatest"
She tapes Merv Griffin shows before an audience which usually contains a delegation of her fan club, holding aloft signs proclaiming: "Jo Anne Worley, the world's greatest."
In her spare time, she auditions for Broadway plays: "It's a big battle," she quips. "I want to do the part they don't want me to do it ... "
She has cut two major records. One is the score of the Mad Show, and the other is Our Wedding Album, a satire of the recent Washington nuptials which brought dry comment from the White House.
She does TV commercials, most of which have appeared only in the New York area. For six months she was Carol Channing's stand-by for Hello, Dolly.
For change of pace, she takes routines as brassy as New York and as folksy as Lowell into Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Bermuda, and she has gone on the road in summer stock with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Moat Happy Fella, Wonderful Town, Naughty Marietta, and Mikado.
The Hometown Scene
Meanwhile, back in Lowell, her father, Joseph Worley, calmly continues painting houses, as he has for years. Her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Worley, who just celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary, probably are better known around town than Jo Anne. For years they operated the Little Store, a tiny candy shop a block from the grade school where kids came for penny treats.
"You know," Jo Anne recalls, "We used to get all the stale candy. To this day I can't stand those peanut butter sticks."
But there were better days 'ahead. Jo Anne worked at Roberts Cafe, a truck stop southwest of Lowell, and saved her money to try show business. When the time came, she entered summer stock because, although she was set on a stage career, she knew absolutely nothing about stage procedure.
A Frightening World
At Nyack, N.Y., she found the show business world so frightening she cried herself to sleep nightly for two months. But there she met a professor from Midwestern University, Wichita Falls, Tex., who offered her a drama scholarship.
After two years of study, she moved to the Pasadena Playhouse theater-school and eventually to Hollywood and the Jerry Lewis Comedy Workshop. "That was a big deal, because he was my idol," she says.
Although destined for comedy, Jo Anne's first stage role was in The Robe. Even more unexpectedly, she successfully auditioned for a singing role as a joke. Never having sung professionally (and without the training of the Lowell Glee Club) she landed the part of Ruth in Wonderful Town. After that came Katishaw, another singing part in Mikado. Then came a year of voice lessons.
Trouble In Gotham
Jo Anne hit New York in a Billy Barnes revue which bombed.
"On opening night in the summertime, the electricity failed," Jo Anne explains. "The circuits were out all over. We held the audience two hours and, of course, the air conditioning was out, too." The show ran a week.
With the National Touring Company of Carnival, Jo Anne replaced Kaye Ballard, who she resembles, in the role of Rosalie. After 1 1/2 years she returned to New York as Carol Channing’s stand-by.
As last Christmas approached, Larry Siegel and Stan Hart, both regular contributors to Mad Magazine, conceived and wrote a tour de farce based on the magazine, with the intention of playing it before college students home for the holidays.
A Long "Short Run"
"Most everybody took the parts because it would be a short run," says Jo Anne.
But as the Mad Show shaped up, backers decided to expand it and try for a regular run. The show opened last January, still is going strong and, according to one New York critic, the Mad Show could run forever."
The revue has bizarre chatter, unbelievable costumes and such catchy tunes as Eccch, and Hate Song. Jo Anne has the stage alone for the vocal, The Gift of Maggie, in which she finds that a zealous relative sent her as a Christmas gift a religious book cover with a sex novel inside.
The show warns you to Beware of Hoof and Mouth Disease, points out that J. Edgar Hoover Sleeps with a Night Light, and pleads to Stamp Out Bennett Cerf.
Lowell In The Spotlight
For her club appearances, Jo Anne writes her own equally wild material, often referring to Lowell: "I was the only person who ever left Lowell—voluntarily." She once hired a writer who, for $500, turned out only one line she used: "Lowell was very small and quiet. We were cut off by a snowstorm for a week—and nobody realized it."
"Now I write my own stuff," says Jo Anne. This includes song parodies and material for giving familiar tunes a twist. "Try to remember," she begins singing, and forgets all the words.
She may go on making Lowell famous, but it's doubtful the town ever will get her back.
"Show business is my life," she declares. "It gets to the point where you can't turn it off. It's impossible."

Worley had garnered enough attention in 1966 to be cast as the star of a TV pilot called Who’s On First about a lady baseball manager (it didn’t sell).

Laugh-In wore out its welcome after a couple of seasons but staggered on with new cast members and a war between Dan Rowan and executive producer George Schlatter (Schlatter lost). This Associated Press stories appeared in papers on May 17, 1970. Worley had decided to quit after three seasons.

Exit ‘Laugh-In,’ but Jo Anne Worley’s Still Laughing

Associated Press Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP) - Jo Anne Worley, the big, boisterous, good-looking loudmouth on "Laugh-In," is the latest drop out from the Rowan & Martin television series.
Emulating Goldie Hawn, who won an Oscar for a supporting role in her first movie, "Cactus Flower," and England's Judy Carne, the sock-it-to-me girl who has returned to the stage, Miss Worley reasons: “The show has been so good to me and for me, that I’m now in a position to do other things.”
Her own TV series is being planned at Warner Bros. for next year, she'll guest star on Andy Williams’ shows and others, match wits regularly on “Hollywood Squares” and this fall appear with Woody Allen, Tom Smothers and Jonathan Winters on an NBC Saturday children’s series, “Hot Dog.”
For the month of July the singer-comedienne is booked at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas. She has had movie offers "but so far nothing really yummy." She may make a return appearance or two on "Laugh-In" next season "like visiting the family."
Besides general clowning at full vocal throttle on "Laugh In", Miss Worley has been its specialist in “chicken jokes.” She thinks calling hogs, cows and chickens as an Indiana farm girl helped develop her powerful voice.
Besides—"When you're out on a farm you don't have neighbors, right? So when you're growing up your parents aren't always going ‘Sh! Sh! Quiet!’ You can go out and scream and holler and yell as much as you want to. And if you want to call somebody you really have to project. My whole family screams."
The middle of five children—her parents are now divorced and remarried—Jo Anne Worley ("rhymes with whirly") grew up on a farm near Lowell, Ind. She earned Christmas money by scavenging corn missed by the mechanical harvester, and selling the ears to a granary.
In high school she saved tips and pay earned as a truck stop waitress near her home to enroll, after graduation, at a summer theater in Nyack, N.Y. She'd seen the ad in Theater Arts Magazine in the school library.
"My father said, 'You're going to pay THEM?' I had no training but a lot of guts. I wanted to see what show business was. I was an apprentice, paid them for room and board. I swept, painted scenery, made props and played one of the men in 'Mr. Roberts' and one of the teachers in 'Picnic.'"
The experience brought her a drama scholarship to Midwestern University, Wichita Falls, Tex. Afterward came the Pasadena Playhouse, the Billy Barnes Revue, night clubs, TV guest spots and, three years ago, an audition for the then a-borning “Laugh-In.”
Jo Anne wasn’t always brash.
“As a little girl I was very introverted. I read a lot of books and things. But in adolescence I broke out. In high school I was voted the school comedienne. “I’d gotten my first laugh in the fifth grade in our two-room grade school. The teacher was calling down a boy, ‘Don’t you get smart.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that why we come to school—to get smart?’ That was the first time I felt the thrill of laughter.
The corn-fed girl grew into a big woman, now early-thirtyish, brunette, with dark chocolate eyes. "I'm 5-feet-8½, but with hair and heels a good 6 feet. I'm 135 pounds and 40-28-40. Big but well-proportioned."
Still unmarried, Miss Worley says: "I keep trying. I think it's the business I’m in, show business. I don't meet eligible men. They're either already married—somebody's already glommed 'em off—or they'd like to do my hair.
"The only eligible men left are divorced men, and they're usually burned and bitter."
“Then there are the divine sick-o’s. Egomaniacs, in show business, who can’t see anyone but themselves.”
She has a current steady date, “a divine gentleman,” actor and composer Roger Perry, but she says there are no immediate prospects of marriage.
She enjoys cooking—"being from a farm, very basic things like bread, cookies, pies, meat and potatoes. And fudge. We made fudge every day."
And buying clothes. "Bargains that I love. Things I enjoy wearing, that turn me on."
She thinks her progress in show business since leaving the farm is partly from not telling, her friends then that she wanted to be a star.
"If you vocalize you let it go the energy that is needed to do something. If you hang in there for a while you're bound to have some ability. You learn your craft."
Back in Lowell High School she was “thrown out of the glee club for being too gleeful. I was always cutting up.”
Now, she is pleased to reflect, there is the Jo Anne Worley Drama Award, given regularly at Lowell High.

Worley appeared periodically on TV after jumping off the sinking S.S. Laugh-In but found herself performing more and more in front of live audiences on the musical stage. She was still performing about a year ago and spending time helping animals in distress. Laugh-In was a lesser show after she left and television is lesser, too, without her on it.


  1. I can imagine Jo Anne understudying for Carol Channing... they're about the same size, and both have boisterous, outgoing personalities.

  2. I remember back in February 1988 listening to " The Tom Snyder Radio Show " on WLS. He had a treat. For the first time since " Laugh In " was cancelled, Tom had Gary Owens, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi in the studio, and Alan Souse and Jo Anne Worley by phone. At the time, Jo Anne was on the road with " Die Fledermaus " and couldn't be in the studio. Gary said he had seen her in that musical and " She was quite good ". It was a hilarious and incredible two hours. Tom didn't realize what he had let himself in for.