April 21, 1926 – Aug. 6, 2021
With its racy clothing and jokes about sex and politics, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In broke many unwritten rules of television in the late 1960s. But nothing put the show in as much jeopardy as its persistent zingers about industries, like tobacco, that deserved to be heckled.
Many a network executive would have caved to pressure from displeased advertisers in those industries, but not Herbert Schlosser ’49, says George Schlatter, the show’s executive producer. Schlosser stood up to them, he says, with “two main things: brains and balls.”
“I remember him calling me into his office about another complaint,” Schlatter says. “He’d invite me for a cup of coffee and say, ‘Well, George, you’re in trouble again.’ I’d say, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He’d say, ‘George, just keep doing what you’re doing.’”
Laugh-In became a cultural icon; not long after it began, half of American televisions on during its time slot were tuned in, Schlatter said. And the sponsors knew it, which is why Schlosser knew they wouldn’t leave.
Schlosser, who helped oversee Laugh-In and rose through NBC to become the network’s president in 1973, followed it up with an even bigger contribution to American television comedy, writing the memo pitching Saturday Night Live. Schlosser also personally led negotiations to bring Johnny Carson to NBC’s Tonight Show in 1962, ultimately putting “an indelible stamp” on the network, The New York Times wrote last summer.
“He loved the days of live television, and he wanted to bring back that feeling of excitement, the feeling that anything could happen.”
“As a human being, he was even more remarkable,” says his son, writer Eric Schlosser ’81. “He was a person of great integrity and very loving and had very high standards that he set for himself, and led by example. We spoke every day.”
He appeared strait-laced and traditional, but Herb also had a “fantastic deadpan sense of humor,” Eric says.
Herb Schlosser’s father came to America from Austria at age 11, a nearly penniless orphan. Herb later joined the Navy and was in officer training school, about to deploy to the Pacific, when World War II ended, Eric says. The GI Bill allowed him to attend Princeton.
The University had a profound effect on him, Eric says. At one point, he gathered some classmates for a trip to lobby Washington for federal anti-lynching legislation. After Princeton he went to Yale Law School.
Saturday Night Live was created in part to placate Carson, who wanted NBC to stop rerunning his show on weekends. In a memo dated Feb. 11, 1975, Schlosser outlined a distinctive, “young and bright” variety show that would double as a training ground for new talent. And it would be performed live.
“He loved the days of live television, and he wanted to bring back that feeling of excitement, the feeling that anything could happen,” Eric Schlosser says. “It was a bold thing that was a burst of energy for television, for young talent, and for New York City.”
Schlosser left NBC in 1978 amid lower ratings than the network sought. Eventually he worked at a Wall Street investment bank, according to the Times, and on a passion project: the Museum of the Moving Image. He was a powerhouse fundraiser and a sounding board for the many who sought his advice on business and leadership, says Ivan Lustig, co-chairman of the museum’s board.
“I had an enormous amount of respect for him, and to me he is still that model of being active, intellectually, and engaged with organizations in your 90s,” Lustig says. When some people retire, “their world narrows. His world never narrowed. He was always looking over the horizon at the next new thing.”
Elisabeth H. Daugherty is PAW’s digital editor.
Watch a Television Academy interview with Herb Schlosser ’49. The full interview is online at the Television Academy Foundation.