George Schlatterm the burly and bearded producer who gave the world "Laugh-In," can be found in Hollywood these days running from room to room in a tape editing factory and literally juggling cassettes that contain the elements of his new series, "Real People," which premieres tonight on NBC for a 6-week test run.
It is easier to define what real people are than what "Real People" is. "It's going to be a combination magazine and variety show." says Schlatter, pressing buttons on a giant console in an editing toom and getting tones and color bars from the bank of monitors in front of him.
"Nice to have these toys, huh?" he says as a picture flutters into focus.
The network calls the program (at 8 on Channel 4) a funny "60 Minutes." Schlatter says, "It is not another madcap, wild, frantic, happy little romp through America-that's NOT what it is" and "It's not 'Laugh-in,'" either.
He also says, "It's-it's -reality!"
In order to make this a tiny bit clearer, he plops on a few cassettes of segments prepared for the program. They are human-interest and oddity features about such American folk as a svelte woman trucker, a male stripper at a club for whistling and stomping female voyeurs, a hobo named Walking George who plays Beethoven on the piano and goes on dream dates in Los Angeles, Jimmy Breslin grumping about the high price of sneakers, and Omar, the teacher at a school for people who want to learn how to panhandle.
"It's an immediate cash flow," Omar ecplaina.
"We're not staging this stuff," says Schlatter from behind the concole. "The people are real, the situations are real. We edit them so they come out interesting. It's a combination of show business or humor applied to news."
The taped or filmed ffeatures will be introduced live by five resident cohosts-Schlatter calls their continuity the "onstage glue"-and they will interpolate such tidbits as newspaper typos. TV bloopers, consumer items and funny news stories.
"Like when Marie Osmond said that she turned down the role in 'Grease' 'cause it wasn't really her kind of part, and they asked her, would she take a role in 'Romeo and Juliet,' and she said she hadn't read the script-you can't write anything funnier than that," says Schlatter, who is as demonstrably enthusiastic as a Labrador at the beach. "So we're dealing, with wherever possible, relity. We are obviously going out and finding interesting people, and if someone is dull, that's real, but we're not going to put them on."
Among the other pieces he auditions are a report on real mom-and-pop TV station, operated by a real mon and pop, in a small Montana town, and a collage of views about income tax, the most persuasive fo them beginning, "This evil and Communistic Mafia organization which is known as the IRS . . ."
Schlatter, who brought topical humor to prime time in a big way with the revolutionary "Laugh-In," says so what if his new program is hard to define-"Laugh-In" was hard to define, too.
"One reason why there's a lack of creativity, a lack of innovation really, in television, is that everything gets pigeon-holed and departmentalized," Schlatter says. "This is the first sho to get into that gray area between news and entertainment, so therefore it feels a little different. You say, 'What am I looking at here?'-right?
"By the time you take a thing and say, 'Now, it's got to be a variety show, or a situation comedy show, or a documentary or movie,' and you pigeon-hole it into that specific category, you immediately start to limit it. Then by the time you tape it six months in advancew and test it and test it and test it, that homogenizes it even more. Then by the time you revise the show and re-edit it and it's all voted on, it comes out again like everything else because it's been subjected to the same pressures."
This was not the case with "Real Prople," Schlatter attests.
"Freddie Silverman [the NBC president] called up and said, "I want to do a show, I want to do it about real people, that's what I want to do.' I have a lot of respect for Fred. He's a fighter, he's inventive. And he'll also say to you, 'Go do it.' This show could never have happened by committee. If this show had to go through the normal developmental stages, it could never happen because everyone would have a reason not to do this and not to do that.
"The same thing happened with 'Laugh-In.' They owed me a commitment and they said, 'Oh, all right, we'll try it.' It got on the air as a special before they realized what it was. They were getting killed on Monday nights by Lucille Ball and 'Gunsmoke' so they said, 'Let's throw this in there.' The only show in history that had tested worse than 'All in the Family' was 'Laugh-in.' But it got on the air, and before they had a chance to 'fix' it, it became a hit."
Is "Real People" really a new idea? Sort of; it's half an idea, any rate, and that's more than usual for television. As half an idea, it deserves far more than half a chance. It deserves a chance and a half. Besides, "Real People" moves prime-time television another step in what many believe to be its inevitable direction; informational variety rather than the standard old chug-chug entertainment formats.
Also, it takes funnying up the news out of the hands of the amateurs-the Eyewitness News clucks at every station in the country-and puts it into the hads of professional entertainers.
"Let's face it, " says Schlatter. "Variety is, if not dead, certainly taking a very long nap. And part of that is because nothing new has been tried in the field of variety and humor since 'Laugh-In.' Variety is not working, no matter how good it is."
Mary Tyler Moore, for example, has just flopped with a variety hour for the second time in a single season. "The Osmond Family Show" is a bomb.
Certainly we are in better hands with blustery and brainstorming mavericks like Schlatter than with the usual run of TV producer. His original "Laugh-In" launched an incredible number of performers and writers on @tv and movie careers. Last year, when he revived "Laugh-In," one of his discoveries was Robin Williams, the biggest new star of the current TV season for "Mork and Mindy."
"I love Robin Williams," says Schlatter. "When I first met him he had a beard and sandals and dirty feet and he smelled like San Pedro." Later, however, there was a rather nasty business about a lawsuit preventing Williams from working on "Mork" while still under contract to Schlatter; Schlatter says his quarrel and the suit, still pending, are with ABC, not Williams, and besides, he doesn't want to talk about it.
The "Laugh-In" revival was not a great artistic triumph-something seemed awfully strained and desperate about the show, though there were definitely highlights-but Schlatter says it got good ratings even though NBC repeatedly moved it to new time slots each time it was on and he had a running battle with the network's department of standards and practices, the censors known to most people as censors.
"The censorship became unbearable," he says. "Much worse than on the forst one-Oh God, yes. We did a piece on nuclear energy that was prophetic, but to get that on the air was a major confrontation between us and the network because they said it would offend the utilities, it would offend the oil companies, and so forth. We did a piece on junk food that upset everybody, not because what we said wasn't true, but because what we said violated the relationship between a major advertiser and the network. I could not say on the show any longer what I wanted to say."
The junk food segment was one of the best on the program. It included a mock commercial for a children's breakfast food-"made out of pure sugar. Add milk and fruit, and you have all the nutritional values of milk and fruit." The FTC should request a copy for its hearings into children's advertising on television.
Schlatter removes himself from the console and ambles into an editing room where the mom-and-pop piece is being given another edit. It plays editor how long it is. "4:20," the film editor says. "Son of a bitch!" shouts Schlatter. He wants it even shorter (in television, they want everything even shorter, except the Oscars). Then story, and it's nice, and it's gentle-body in it."
Schlatter sits at a desk and takes off his glasses so his big round Zero Mostel eyes can be seen more clearly. He is told that "Real People" might be uneconominal since the sale of reruns would be minimal.
"I'm not interested in 'reruns,'" he says convincingly. "Reruns are money. I'm interested in what I can say that is appealing to me and interesting. So I may be, you know, the last of a breed, but I like what I'm doing here.
"I love television. I do love it, where else could I do a show like this? Television was, well, it was a very pretty baby. Now it's going through a period. It's struggling through puberty. It's got a lot of pimples right now. But hopefully, some day, it will be an attractive adult." CAPTION: Picture, Hosts, front from left, Skip Stephenson, Sara Purcell, John Barbour; back, Fred Willard, Bill Rafferty