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Interview: Jo Anne Worley talks 'Laugh-In,' Nixon, chickens and more

Image: The Everett Collection

A little more than half a century ago, Jo Anne Worley was performing burlesque theater in Hollywood. The young actress and comedian was in a show with vaudeville legends Joey Faye and Jack Albertson. "I was so green and inexperienced, they cut down my part to one pantomine sketch." One evening, as the cast came out for their bows, the spotlight malfunctioned. The light was meant to shine on each ensemble member as they were introduced. But the light stayed on Worley. So she made funny faces. The audience roared.

In the crowd that night was Billy Barnes, a composer with popular revue Billy Barnes' People. He came up to Worley afterward and asked her, “Do you talk? Do you sing?” That was her break.

From there, Worley moved to Broadway, where her big personality was perfectly suited for brassy roles like Hello, Dolly! The Merv Griffin Show gave her exposure on television, which led to her casting in Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The Indiana native was part of the original cast of the groundbreaking sketch and variety series, alongside equally brilliant talent like Judy Carne, Henry Gibson, Goldie Hawn, Larry Hovis and Arte Johnson.

Today, Laugh-In is on Decades, while Worley is back in a Hollywood theater. Her most recent role is an uproarious, retro holiday revue titled Santa-Thon 2016, hosted by Fred Willard. She spoke with us over the phone from her home in California, where the animal lover lives with her rescue dog, a Yorkie named Harmony. 

DECADES: In your current show, Santa-Thon 2016, you perform a riff on Match Game. For many of us, that 1970s game show was perhaps our first introduction to your talents. What are your favorite memories of doing Match Game?

"One time, I was eating a caramel and a filling came out! I remember that distinctly. They were great fun, as you can well imagine. You would do five in a day — three before a lunch break, and then two more. You'd take five different outfits. So, I had a good excuse to buy clothes."

The studio didn't supply you with wardrobe?

"Oh, sure, but not for that. The emcees would have their clothes given or loaned to them by a sponsor — Botany 500 or whatever. Though, there was one game show that supplied clothes. Readers might remember a brand for women called Goldworm. I got a whole bunch of Goldworm gloves and a few dresses from them."

Do you still own all that clothing?

"Absolutely! I have a wardrobe house out in the backyard. I have wardrobe from a lot of the musicals I do — MameGypsyDollyAnything Goes. I like the convenience of having my own wardrobe, of not having to worry on opening night if something fits you. Once, I was doing Mame in Sacramento. It's in the round — you go through the audience to get to the stage in the center. They were sewing me into my dress as I was going down the aisle! I learned to take care of myself."

It must be a fantastic wardrobe house.

"As a matter of fact, in this show I’m doing right now, I have a corsage made out of pretend poinsettias. It’s a corsage that I wore when I was playing Miss Hannigan in Annie, when they go to Daddy Warbucks' on Christmas."

Speaking of amazing fashion, let's get to Laugh-In. Even today, the show feels so contemporary, the pace of it. It's remarkably fast.

"If something doesn’t land or tickle your funny bone, in about a minute, there’s going to be something else. It’s no big deal."

Was that approach new to you? Was it a style you had experienced performing in the Village or was it a new TV concept?

"I had done a revue of an Off-Broadway show called The Mad Show, which was based on and written by Mad Magazine people. It was fast and furious. It had subliminal thoughts, like in a cloud projected on the stage, much like in Laugh-In, how they would run something that says 'Colonel Sanders Loves Thighs' or whatever. It was like Laugh-In. We would do musical numbers, together and solo, and do blackouts, as they’re called onstage. It’s quick cuts on television, but in theater they’re blackouts. It wasn’t a new thing. What was new was in the editing. They did the quick cuts. Things were moving fast. That, of course, was copied by many other shows. Commercials took that on, too, and movies. Our attention spans are ever shortening — you gotta get it quick!"

When did you become aware of the influence of the show?

"We were really busy working, so you’re not out in the world too much. The first time, I believe it was at the Yellow Submarine premiere, the Beatles movie. A bunch of us went to that. We found we couldn’t get across the street. We were out in the real world with real people, not around makeup and directors and crew people. We went, 'Whoa.' Certainly you watch the ratings and you know what the numbers are, and it became No. 1."

What was the creative process like putting together an episode? Was it all written ahead of time or was improvisation a key element?

"There were excellent writers, lots of excellent writers. The show was totally scripted when we went to the studio to shoot it. But, we were encouraged to contribute. We could write a sketch or a blackout and submit it and have it put in the script. Or, say we were on a set, like in a kitchen, and you think of something. You do what the blackout is supposed to be, give it a beat, so they could cut, and then do an alternate ending or punchline. And quite often that would be gold. You would never ruin what was written on the page, but if you had another idea to add, they could put in the library. Sometimes they would have a library show, which is just put together with sketches and blackout and songs and things."

Is there one particular thing you came up with that sticks out in memory?

"Well, I would say, 'Is that another chicken joke?' That came out of a table read. I was doing a rant about chickens. [Worley goes into the bit.] 'Every other group has people to stand up for them, but what about the poor chickens! Nobody stands up for the chickens! ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ Do you think that’s funny? Chickens don’t think that’s funny. I’ve got to stand up and say I love chickens — especially the legs!' And I then took out a leg and started eating it. Well, within that script, there was another reference to a chicken. So I said, 'Hey, is that a chicken joke?' Everybody at the table laughed. There happened to be another reference to a chicken later on. Again I went, 'Is that another chicken joke?!' And so then they started writing them!"

Richard Nixon famously appeared on Laugh-In shortly before the 1968 election. How did that come about?

"Paul [W.] Keyes, who was the head writer, was a speechwriter for Nixon. He’s the one who facilitated him coming into the studio. As a matter of fact, we all were not around. It wasn’t in the studio where we usually shoot. Nixon was brought in through the back door and went into the studio alone. The producer, George Schlatter, would tell Nixon what to say and how to say it, like, 'Sock it to me?' And then he'd tell him, 'Say it again: Sock it to MEEESOCK IT to me!' So he wouldn’t have to read cue cards. It was just Nixon, the writer, the producer and the technicians who were there."

How did the cast feel about the presidential candidate appearing on the show?

"We didn’t even know about it! We didn’t know about it until afterward, because of security and all that stuff."

Are there other guest stars that stand out in your memory?

"George Schlatter said that movie stars could be uptight about doing television, because that’s not their usual thing — they're used to being scripted. He’d tell me, 'Jo Anne, go loosen 'em up!' So I would go and do whatever it is I do and try to relax them. Everybody wanted to be on the show. And if they didn’t, their kids made them do it. John Wayne did it several times. I do have the memory of doing the joke wall. After doing the joke wall, you would climb down to the floor behind there. John Wayne had already gotten down off the stage, and he lifted me down, like the ladies from the buckboards in the old Westerns. He put his hands on my waist and lifted me down. That was heaven.'

It sounds like it was a positive, upbeat environment. Do you still keep in touch with others from the show?

"I just talked to George Schlatter the other day, and I got a Christmas present from him and his wife! I’m president of the charity Actors and Others for Animals. We had a fundraiser recently, and Lily Tomlin is on our board. She was funny as always and presented a couple of awards. Of course, Goldie, bless her heart, has made so many beautiful, talented children. I talk to Ruth Buzzi from time to time, who lives in Texas now. They have a big old ranch there. Strangely enough, a chicken farm! But they’re all pets. She assures me they’re all pets, so they’re being treated very well!"

It always comes back to the chickens! Any other thoughts you'd like to share? 

"The message that Actors and Other Animals likes to get out into the world is the importance of spay and neuter. Be a responsible pet owner and make sure your pet is spayed or neutered. And be sure and go to a shelter!"

Watch Jo Anne and all the others on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, weeknights at 6pET and 12aET on Decades.

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