Wednesday 31 May 2023

Laughin' Before Laugh-In With Arte

They weren’t overnight successes, most of the original cast of Laugh-In. Judy Carne had starred in Love on a Rooftop. Ruth Buzzi showed up on That Girl. Jo Anne Worley had appeared on The Merv Griffin Show.

Arte Johnson had not one, but two TV series. Likely you don’t remember either of them.

Johnson was a nightclub comic who was signed for a role in It’s Always Jan, a sitcom which debuted in 1955 that CBS decided It’s No Longer Jan on its schedule after a year. Then in 1958, Johnson was added to the cast of Joan Caulfield’s NBC comedy Sally—after the show was cancelled. He and Gale Gordon were signed for the last seven episodes. Gordon played (this won’t surprise you) a pompous, disapproving grouch. Johnson played his bumbling son. Johnson was signed after series writer Phil Shuken saw him in “No Time for Sergeants” on Broadway.

He was considered on the rise once he hired for Janis Paige’s show. Here are a couple of articles, first from April 9, 1955.

Young Man With A Future
Arte Johnson Enters T.V As A Delivery Boy
New York—Twenty-three-year-old Arte Johnson seems to be a young man with a bright future. Despite his relative youth, Arte is a veteran of night clubs, radio and T. V. Currently he's causing quite a stir in New York with his appearance in the sell-out "Shoestring Revue". It was during his run in the show that opportunity knocked loudly.
Artie Stander, a writer who created a new T. V. series, remembered him from a C. B. S. audition of the preceding year and called to offer him a job. There was to be a new T. V. film series, starring Janis Paige, aNd Stander had written in a part specially for Johnson. When Artie asked Arte if he'd be interested, our boy took a leave of absence from "Shoestring Revue" and flew post-haste to Hollywood.
"I didn't want to appear anxious," he told me.
The show, tentatively titled "The Four Of Us", concerns the adventures of a night club performer-widow and takes place in New York. Arte plays the delivery boy from the grocery downstairs. "Believe me," he said, "it's a different type of part. I'm an intelligent delivery boy.
"I had a long talk with Artie Stander about the role, and we both agreed that the best way to approach it would be to emphasize the human values and not try to dig for laughs based on slapstick or improbable situations. I'm the delivery boy and I like the people upstairs. So when the owner of the store refuses to advance them credit, I do."
He agreed that this did not sound like the epitome of intelligence.
"After all," Arte explained, "I'm basically a performer. If the part changes, all I can do is complain. But I do honestly believe the approach is right.
"I don't care what happens now. (He really does care.) Doing the film was the greatest experience of my life. I met all kinds of people I never dreamed I'd get close to—Desi Arnaz, Lucy, Ray Bolger, Danny Thomas, who's one of the producers, Sheldon Leonard, our director, Janis Paige. . ." He didn't say much after that name, he just sighed.
"We rehearsed the show for four days and then shot it before an audience. With laughter, it ran 38 minutes, and we had to cut out laughs to get it down to 27 minutes. That hurts.
"I haven't seen the pilot film yet. I understand the show is on the verge of being sold, but I'm almost afraid to look at it. I've been invited to another screening which will be held in New York, but I don't know whether I'll be brave enough to go even then."

The Indianapolis News gave readers this profile on Nov. 1, 1955. The typesetter seems to have had problems with the show’s name.

Don't Sell a Short Man Short
Arte Johnson, the bespectacled young comedian in It's Alway Jan [sic], is in television because he couldn't see over the top of a counter.
The 5-2 Arte worked as a production assistant at a publishing house.
"I worked behind a desk," he said, "and didn't have the nerve to become a salesman. A friend dared me to go on the stage, and since I couldn't see over the top of the counter anyway, I joined the road show of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blonds'."
A native Chicagoan and a graduate of the University of Illinois School of Journalism, Johnson went to New York in 1952 and joined the publishing firm. He made his first appearance in the cafe circuit, at Le Ruban Bleu and later on at the Village Vanguard.
Contrary to the experience of most people in TV, Arte finds the work relaxing. His aim is direction and production on TV.
"We work four days out of the week, we rehearse three days and shoot the fourth, before a live audience," he said in a long-distance telephone interview.
"There is not the pressure of live TV on our shows," he added. "We work on film with the advantage of a live audience." Arte said that he had a minor role in "Miracle in the Rain," new movie which features Jane Wyman and Van Johnson.
"My role will probably end up on the cutting room floor," he laughed, "but I love that money. It's so pleasant."
Arte has one brother, Coslough Johnson, just returned from Japan. "He was going to change his name to Howard but he thought people might laugh," Arte said. He says there is a great, influx of young talent to Hollywood right now and that "within five years, live TV will come only from New York, The filmed material will all be done in Hollywood."
It's Aways Jan [sic] is carried here on Saturdays by WISH-TV.

One of the advantages when you’re not known on television is you aren’t typecast. You can try out for different roles. Johnson appeared in a movie in 1965 playing something no one would associate with him today. This appeared in papers in August 1965.

Arte Johnson Scores Hit
Newspaper Enterprise Association.
HOLLYWOOD—When you see "The Third Day," an old-fashioned melodrama starring George Peppard and Elizabeth Ashley, you'll probably be impressed by a little man playing the psychopathic heavy. You are not alone.
Arte Johnson's performance is creating a lot of talk here. Johnson says that Helmut Dan-tine, whom he had never met, saw the picture and called him to say that "You will be the next Peter Lorre."
This is perfectly fine with Arte (pronounced Artie), but it amuses him. You see, he started out on the musical comedy stage in New York, came to Hollywood nine years ago and has been doing comedy in television and in night clubs.
He never made much of a splash here—"I was an owl actor—mention my name and people would say ‘Who? Who?’ "—but he did well enough to get by.
But then his old pal, Peppard, insisted that he play the evil one in "The Third Day."
"George called me," Arte says, "and he said, 'I've just read you in a script—a hostile little man.'"
Arte, who is 5'3" and weighs 125 pounds, says he guesses he is hostile.
"All little men are inclined toward hostility," he says, "and all comics are inclined toward hostility. So I guess I'm doubly inclined toward hostility."
He smiled as he said it. Hostile smile, it was.

This was not too many months after comic roles as an efficiency expert (Many Happy Returns, John McGiver’s starring vehicle), a playboy son (The Cara Williams Show) and Samantha’s elf cousin (Bewitched). There was some on-location comedy during filming of The Third Day. Johnson’s dialogue couldn’t be heard over the mooing of cows in a pasture.

Perhaps that’s what dissuaded him from a career as a character actor (he got some favourable reviews). By 1967 he was guesting on sitcoms, and then stories began popping up in newspapers in August that he would be in the cast of a special featuring take-offs and put-ons that NBC would air the following month. Dan Rowan, Dick Martin and producer George Schlatter promised quick sketches and a different format. UPI’s Rick Du Brow proclaimed the humour mixed but added “the one-shot show was memorable for the brilliant comedic singing, dancing and line-handling of Arte Johnson, whose pseudo-Russian song was priceless, and, as I understand it, impromptu.

NBC picked up the “one-shot” Laugh-In as a series. Arte Johnson’s career was changed forever.

1 comment:

  1. My earliest memories of Arte Johnson was as Judy Garland's comic on her show. Also an early appearance with Jack Carson on " The Twilight Zone ". But, he was able to shine/cut loose on " Laugh-In ". All his dialects., Wolfgang, Tyrone F. Hornigh to mention about sixty. He told a funny story on WLS Radio back in 1988. Arte loved " Laugh-In ", but hated the weekly dance numbers. To show his distain, he would start to dance, then drop dead flat on the floor. His co stars would have to drag him around, dance around him, lift him and dance with his dead weight. Bobby Darin( Guest star in one of those dance numbers) told him; " Arte, you're real cute, you take two steps......then you die!!!! ". Funny stuff..