In 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon was beaten by Senator John Kennedy by a thin margin for the Presidency. Barely recovered from the flu when they debated, Nixon’s television appearance in the debate contributed to his defeat.
In 1962, having returned home to Los Angeles, he was trounced in his race for Governor by Pat Brown. Feeling that media dislike for him had factored in his loss, he snapped at them, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and his flash of anger was seen by millions on television.
Beaten, defeated, trounced and kicked. After all that, why did Nixon want to get socked? And on television before millions of voters?
In 1968, Nixon won the Republican Presidential nomination. On his campaign payroll was a joke writer by the name of Paul Keyes; months earlier, Keyes had begun working on a new show, complete with shapely chicks in acid-colored bikinis and mod flowered body paints, and wildly costumed pranksters spouting sexually hip one-liners, hosted by two swinging bachelor types, the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin.
The vibe of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In could not have been further at odds with Nixon’s Persona as tough, square and taking himself too seriously. Which is exactly why Keyes convinced him to appear on the show to deliver its signature line most associated with Laugh-In lovelies Judy Carne and Goldie Hawn. “Sock It to Me!”
Here’s the short Nixon appearance on Laugh-In:
Stealing a few minutes between campaign appearances when he was next in the Los Angeles area, Nixon did six takes, the first few seeming insulted or serious. When he asked it as a question, however, it proved ironic and tapped into a self-deprecatory streak that the formal politician had never considered displaying in public. But the times, they were a’changing, and even the kids who were slated to be sent off to Vietnam under LBJ and soon Nixon could at least relate to the joke. He got the basic appearance fee of $210.During a rally in Burbank, where Laugh-In was filmed at the NBC Studios, Nixon was joined by Rowan and Martin. The Nixon bit on Laugh-In aired on September 16, 1968. His Democratic opponent, then-incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey turned down an invitation to also appear, missing a chance to put himself before the younger demographic of the show. In later years Nixon (and many chroniclers of the ’68 election) credited his Laugh-In appearance for helping him go on to victory.
Rowan and Martin were strong supporters of Nixon as President. In January 1973, they even taped a short gag for his 60th birthday on January 9. He called to thank them – and it was recorded by his secret taping system. Being just days after his controversial bombing of Hanoi, he found some escape in talking to them, focusing on the forthcoming Super Bowl game between the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins. Here is the brief call, now part of the so-called “Watergate Tapes,” of the National Achives Nixon Presidential Library.