It hit Cleveland in 1968 without any warning, like one of those late March snowstorms. This particular storm didn't drop the usual blanket of snow; instead it delivered a blizzard of Cleveland jokes -- like these:
In Cleveland, Velveeta cheese can be found in the gourmet section of the supermarket.
Attention Cleveland! Your river is on fire.
Definition of a plush Cleveland cocktail lounge: A bottle of Seagram's with a brown bag around it.
In Cleveland, St. Patrick's Day parade consists of 50,000 Jewish onlookers watching the help walk by.
Attention Cleveland! Your lake just died.
The best steak on the menu at Cleveland's classiest steak house is an all-beef wiener.
The satirical wind that blew these one-liners in from the southwest was a landmark TV series called Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. Together with Burbank, California, Cleveland was to have the dubious "honor", of being the butt of a running gag on a national TV show that was reaching upwards of 40 million Americans each week.
From one end of the country ... to the other -- that's a lot of people laughing at you.
And who was responsible for making Cleveland a national joke? Who was it? Was it a shadowy cabal plotting from the network towers in New York? Or was it a solitary out-of-his-tree California TV writer who'd been out in the smog too long? Who?
It was a native son of Cleveland.
It was a native son of Cleveland one who was not only born in Cleveland, but was raised, was educated and worked in Cleveland. The man who made Cleveland a national joke on Laugh-In is a 43-year-old TV writer named Jack Hanrahan.
You may not know Jack Hanrahan by name, for he toils away from the limelight, along with TV's myriad other writers, producers, directors and behind-the-scenes people. But you do know his work. You've seen it if you've watched TV programs like: Laugh-In, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Sonny and Cher Show, The Ray Stevens Show, The Bobby Darin Show, Get Smart, He and She, The Debbie Reynolds Show, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Bridget Loves Bernie, Temperature's Rising, The Waltons, Insight, Marcus Welby MD, Police Story, Police Woman, The Flintstones, The Banana Splits and The Mouse Factory.
Most Clevelanders will concede that a man who has put words in the mouths of such lovable characters as Andy Williams' Cookie Bear, Grandpa Walton and even Mickey Mouse can't be all bad. But the question remains: Why did Hanrahan do it to Cleveland?
In truth, he really didn't have it in for his hometown; it just turned out that way.
According to TV comedy star Tim Conway, a former Clevelander himself, the real reason that Cleveland jokes were adopted with such fervor on the show was that the rage for Polish jokes was simply losing its edge. There were other problems, too.
Hanrahan recalls that someone sent the Laugh-In writers a note hastily scribbled with crayola on a Zee towel, which was signed by a Polish anti-defamation league somewhere in Milwaukee. The note said:
If Youse keep up dis here smart ass jokes about us Poles youse are gonna get yerselfs in deep trouble.
"Upon reading the note I mused over what 'deep trouble' they had in mind," says Hanrahan. "The worst deep trouble that I could conjure up would be a forced march from beautiful downtown Burbank to Pulaski Square in Cleveland, where we would be chained and left to the merciless attack of 5,000 dysentery-ridden pigeons."
The idea to use Cleveland as a replacement for Polish jokes occurred early one morning shortly after the NBC censor had cautioned Laugh-In's writers to go easy on ethnic jokes.
But let Hanrahan tell you in his own words of that historic moment:
"Losing the Poles meant rewriting several pieces or replacing them. Hard-pressed to find a substitute we finally got around to considering a city as a target. We were already getting a few laughs with Burbank, but we needed something to cinch the ratings in the East and Midwest. We had already written off the South because the show was slightly offensive to most of the cotton gin and white lightning set.
"Anyhow, we were running through the list of cities like a dose of salts. We even considered reviving earlier useables. Someone sent up a test balloon for Anaheim.
"'How about a shot of the little guy on the tricycle, with the raincoat driving up the freeway and we see him run into a city limits sign that says: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING ANAHEIM ... SET YOUR WATCHES BACK ONE HUNDRED YEARS, someone suggested.
"Our producer, George Schlatter, said the gag was too esoteric, which got an even better than brownie point laugh from the group because everyone there knew damn well that Schlatter had no idea what esoteric meant. "Then someone bounced a coffee cup off Schlatter's dome while a fistfight broke out between the guy who dreamed up the Anaheim gag and a writer on his right. The guy who wrote the gag is a Commie and anyone around him is on his right.
"Things deteriorated to the point where we were all ready to laugh at anything anyone said just to get the meeting over with. Several pages of foolscap with every city in the Atlas written, scrawled or typed on them were scattered about amidst butt-filled paper coffee cups. By midnight we had gotten down to Schroone Lake, New York, and Lake Titicaca, which is somewhere in the Andes.
" 'Let's put it to a vote,' some brown nose screamed. This guy was one of those creatures who figured everything could be resolved by putting it to a vote. Schlatter, who was on to the guy, bounced a coffee cup off his pate in the spirit of good clean despotism. By now I could feel the sure symptoms of terminal boredom setting in and proposed we forget the whole thing. This motion came close to getting a standing ovation.
"The brown nose immediately called for a vote. Even the Communist snarled approval and for a few brief exhilarating moments we tasted the heady wine of intellectual freedom. That is, until Schlatter, in the spirit of good clean perversity, bounced a table lamp off my head and yelled: 'Don't pay any attention to Hanrahan's ravings, he's from Cleveland.'
"Suddenly, the room grew hushed. Twelve demented writers stared at each other, knowingly, cunningly, sagely. First it came as a little giggle of relief, which soon spread to a rumbling chuckle and then swelled and crescendoed into a fit of crazed, uncontrollable gutshaking, relief-giving laughter. Of course, Cleveland, naturally Cleveland. Cleveland ... it was there in front of us all the time. All we had to do was go through the script and drop the word Cleveland into the openings vacated by the Poles, and the script laughed, chuckled and guffawed back to life like a beached whale revived by a tidal wave.
"So that's how it all began: 12 lowly disciples of Olsen and Johnson in a lonely motel somewhere in Burbank."
Ironically, if you ask Hanrahan today to recall a few of those Cleveland jokes, he cannot remember any. He has to get on the phone and call Conway, who remembers a few.
"Pittsburgh was the place we made fun of when I grew up back in Cleveland," Hanrahan says. "I didn't think Cleveland was funny when I grew up there. I thought it was a nice city." The serious facade beneath his neatly trimmed beard gives way to his boisterous Irish laugh, as he adds, "Until I got out of it!"
Hanrahan claims he is unable to fathom Cleveland's self-consciousness over its image. He points out that Burbank loved the publicity it got from Laugh-In. Yet Cleveland cringes in terror when it gets a little bad publicity about the Cuyahoga River igniting or 10-cent Beer Night at the Stadium foaming over into a riot. "If you are really proud of your city," he asserts, "you don't have to worry about such things."
Besides originating the Cleveland jokes for Laugh-In, Hanrahan also created the show's Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award, but he insists on sharing the credit. "'The flying fickle finger of fate strikes again!' was a line that our head writer Paul Keyes created for Rowan and Martin in their monologue in the first season," says Hanrahan. "In the second season we were looking for new things to goose the show up with. So I suggested, 'Why don't we give a Fickle Finger of Fate Award of the week to some jerk -- of which there are many.' They had me design it and they made one up. We would look through the news each week for whatever was current and topical."
"Naturally we gave Cleveland the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award," Hanrahan notes.
Laugh-In's riotous all-night writing sessions got so crazy that Jack had to rent an office a few blocks from NBC. He needed a refuge from the non-stop insanity of a dozen fellow comedy writers all trying to top each other's last oneliner.
Hanrahan still keeps his Burbank office today. The office is really a tiny pad in an apartment house whose small, narrow courtyard and nondescript California stucco call to mind the San Berdo Apartments in The Day of the Locust. In fact, as tacky as the place is today, it does have a charm just as intriguing as the fictional apartments in Nathaniel West's novel. In the '30s stars from Warner Bros. (which is only a block away) like Errol Flynn used to have their assignations there, with studio brass picking up the tab.Hanrahan's apartment is easier to find by night than by day. In the, living room of his pad Christmas tree lights permanently light the windows and the front door. Never mind that the calendar says it's not December.
Hanrahan' lounges about in his favorite writing attire -- a bathrobe sans footwear. His favorite position (for his "alpha wave torpors," as he calls his writer's daydreams) is stretched out on a studio couch. His dog, a puppy of mixed ancestry, romps underfoot.
Like most comedy writers, Hanrahan can't resist dropping a oneliner into the most serious conversation For instance, when discussing and writing the heritage of the Irish, he interjected his definition of an Irish homosexual: "That's an Irishman who gives up drinking for a woman."
Hanrahan won an Emmy in 1970 for his Laugh-In writing, but he jokingly shrugs off even that honor. "The Emmy would probably have meant more to me," he explains, "except unfortunately the second day it was home, it was smudged with peanut butter and jelly. And I caught my six-year-old trying to dress it in a Barbie Doll outfit. That takes a little of the glitter off."
Joking aside, an Emmy topping a writer's credit list means a lot in Hollywood. Though Hanrahan plays down the award and the money Laugh-In eventually brought him, he delights in reminiscing about the show. A logical place to begin is at the beginning: "Who created Laugh-In?"
"Yes, that's right. Who created Laugh-In."
"That's what I want to know."
"The name of the guy."
Abbott and Costello's classic "Who's on first?" routine wouldn't be far afield of the silly battles fought in the press during Laugh-In's six seasons as to who was the one creator of the show.
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were sure they created it. They argued that Laugh-In's progenitor was a TV pilot they had taped in San Francisco. Executive producer George Schlatter argued that he and Digby Wolfe (of That Was the Week That Was fame) wrote the presentation that became Laugh-In."While it might have been George's baby," Jack Hanrahan observes, "it had a lot of fathers." The show was a product of 176 people by his count. "The writers could be credited with really only 60 percent of what was on the air. That was the beautiful thing, the way everyone contributed to it. It was the 'Class of '69,' " he says with obvious affection.
Like most hits in show business, Laugh-In happened because all the right people were together at the right time. In 1967 NBC was looking for a vehicle for Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, two nightclub comics who had been a great ratings success as the summer replacement for The Dean Martin Show. NBC hired a rising young producer named George Schlatter to produce the show. So impressed was Ed Friendly, the NBC executive who had bought the show, that he resigned his network job to become a partner with Schlatter in Laugh-In.
Hanrahan and his then partner, Phil Hahn, joined the show when it became a weekly series in late January 1968. "They followed Bob Hope's theory," Hanrahan explains. "If four writers are funny, eight writers are funnier; 12 are even funnier. They got a lot of writers -- all cheap -- because we all were either in trouble or new." To this zany writing staff, Schlatter added fresh, talented performers Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley and Judy Carne to name a few.Its rapid-fire pacing was one secret of Laugh-In's success. Gags came so fast that if an old clunker slipped in, another joke was on the way before a viewer could groan over the bad one.
"Dan and Dick were the least funny," says Hanrahan. "But they understood that, and they were glad to have Laugh-In. In fact, before Laugh-In the two guys had split up several times. At one point they had it written into their contract that they didn't have to speak to each other except on stage. Neither could ging or play a romantic lead, and neither could act, as was found out in their movie, The Maltese Bippy."
The remembrance of that movie breaks Hanrahan up. However, he adds, "That's not really fair. Dan and Dick could act well in the comedy pieces. And I'll tell you something. The show may not have been predicated on Rowan and Martin, but to me they were an essential part of Laugh-In."
The awards piled as high as the top ratings. By the end of its 14-show first season, Laugh-In had won four Emmys -- including program of the year and best achievement in comedy writing. At the end of the fourth season the Emmy tally had climbed to 26 Emmys and 126 nominations.
However, by the third season the chemistry had soured.
There was the growing clash between Rowan and Martin and George Schlatter. Dan and Dick wanted a classy show while George wanted to keep the experimental free-for-all format. Personal as well as artistic temperaments were involved.
Another factor that soured the sweetness-and-light atmosphere, according to Hanrahan, was the greed and ambition that set in. "Agents began to whisper, 'Hey, you are really good.'" So performers, writers and producers left for greener pastures. Hanrahan and his writing partner quit because they had begun to repeat themselves as writers. Also, Hanrahan contends that he and Phil Hahn didn't get proper credit. "We were putting the scripts together, but we only got 'script supervisor' credit, when we were, in effect, head writers. But Paul Keyes wouldn't give up that title." He shrugs and adds, "We had gotten our Emmy out of it. We were getting better offers, so we left."
Laugh-In's last new show aired in March 1973. While it had finished a consistent first in its initial seasons, it hobbled across the finish line 51st in the Nielsen derby.
Though there has been occasional talk of reviving Laugh-In, it hasn't happened yet. Its pioneering flashy style and breakneck pacing, however, have continued to influence the TV shows that have followed it.
John Vincent Hanrahan was born 43 years ago in Cleveland's Westpark district to George and Mary Hanrahan. With 11 children in the family, George Hanrahan had to hustle extra jobs to supplement his fireman's pay. Hustling a buck was a talent young Jack soon picked up, and he used it to work his way through Cathedral Latin High. "I could sing a little," he recalls, "and I played hell out of my harmonica, working mostly in Irish joints or some of the Italian places out near Murray Hill."
Jack's father died in 1949 when Jack was 16. Jack then began a patchwork pattern of school and work that was to foreshadow his later life habits. His two-year stint with Laugh-In was the longest he's ever held a job.
Hanrahan attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he dug drawing live nude models but hated architecture. He made a 180-degree turnabout by deciding to become a priest. "For the next six months I was in Saint Mary's Seminary, Kentucky," he says. "I did get a little time out for good behavior at the local Trappist monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky," he adds without a ghost of a chuckle.
Giving up his clerical vocation, Hanrahan enrolled at John Carroll University and took a succession of jobs, including a two-year Army stint, as a member of the Special Services, spent entertaining in troop shows.
Hanrahan claims that the only reason he left Cleveland was that he ran out of places to work, having managed to pass through the portals of such places as American Greetings, The Cleveland Press, WGAR, WERE, KYW-Radio and TV and WEWS.
In 1960 he set his sights on New York City, but landed instead at Lake Placid, a small upstate resort town. In Lake Placid he tried his hand at running his own greeting card company in partnership with his brother. It failed. Back to hustling, Hanrahan worked as a deejay, newspaper columnist, nightclub singer and freelance greeting card writer. Jack and his writing partner, Phil Hahn, sold some articles to Mad Magazine and wrote a couple of children's books.
Hahnrahan got a job working in New York for Merv Griffin Productions. That depressed Hanrahan. He thought he'd like to be writing for TV, too. So one day in 1964 he sat down and wrote a script for Jackie Gleason. He mailed it to Hahn's agent, who forwarded it to Gleason's manager in Florida. Hanrahan got a call from Miami, and two days later he was working for The Great One. His salary jumped from $150 to $750 a week.
After the Gleason show ended in 1966, Hanrahan and Hahn teamed up again and went out to Hollywood, where together and separately they have been busy ever since.
To those on the outside looking in, the world of the Hollywood TV writer looks like the good life. They pay you $3,000 and more for a single show's script. The big home, the cars, the swimming pool -- it all comes. But certain occupational pressures inevitably begin to weigh on the successful TV writer. Television is the most ephemeral art form for writers. There is nothing so dead as last week's show. True, there may be a rerun or two, but afterwards the show vanishes forever. There's nothing solid left, no book to grab onto. And yellowing clippings in a scrap book often aren't good enough answers when a writer asks himself, "What have I got to show for the last five years?"
To keep his identity, a TV writer must turn out script after script. But quantity is not a guarantee of quality.
In 1971 these occupational pressures began to build on Jack Hanrahan. There were other problems, too. He was drinking heavily and doping even more heavily. In retrospect, Hanrahan has sorted it out: "I am a hyper manic-depressive, but I kept the depressed side down for too long by being this smiling Irishman. I finally cracked."
The price for his success was a three-week hospital stay for a nervous breakdown and an ulcer. Hanrahan remembers that just before going to the hospital, he went down to his basement study and assessed his work as a writer. Looking over some 350 TV scripts, more than 2,000 greeting cards, a raft of magazine pieces and a dozen children's books, he picked out those with quality -- those that were really his work and not assignments written and rewritten at some producer's whim. Hanrahan came up with about eight TV scripts and a couple of children's books.
After getting out of the hospital, Hanrahan vowed to do only quality projects and to write only meaningful works. He claims he's paid a terrible price financially, dropping from $80,000 a year to nothing in four months. Every so often, he does take an assignment he doesn't particularly relish just to survive.
Hanrahan's maturation as a writer has even redefined his concept of comedy. "Life, I presume, is more a comedy than a tragedy despite the ultimate practical joke called death," he explains. "You might as well have as much fun as you can because you'll never get out of it alive. So comedy must be a part of it. But comedy in the true sense doesn't mean 'ha-ha.' Comedy is the humor of the human condition. And if I press too hard on the laugh button, I'm not being honest. That's what I see with oneline comics; that's what I see with shows like Laugh-In. It's not real, going for the jugular all the time."
If this growth has been traumatic financially and professionally to Hanrahan, it's been even costlier in his personal life. It broke up his marriage. After 17 years of marriage and six children, Hanrahan and his wife Rosemarie Donovan Hanrahan (also a native Clevelander) separated.
Hanrahan doesn't take the easy way and blame show business. "I don't take the blame fully," he says, "but I don't think it would have been any other way any place else. I work odd hours and live an odd life. But the wonderful lady I married is a very steady-eddy person. We simply grew apart in different directions, and the marriage just came apart. But we do have one beautiful thing in common -- our six children -- and we both love them very dearly."
Nothing irks Hanrahan more than talking about some of the so-called "bright, new stars" on the tube these days, The sting in his voice is not mere comic sarcasm when he speaks on this subject: "Tell me that McLean Stevenson puts you on your ass! Funny? What is that? That's a Richmond Bros. clothing salesman. I cannot get excited when I see Jackie Gleason out of work and that man working! That's wrong."
"It's wrong!" Hanrahan repeats, doubling the anger in his voice. "A real talent like Jonathan Winters sits around idle more than anybody I know of in this town. And Sid Caesar. Sits around waiting for offers. So what do the networks give you? Tony Orlando! I wouldn't work for that bellhop!"
Hanrahan walked out on The Sonny and Cher Show for the same reason. "They never really had anything to say," says Jack. "So how can you write words for them? With Cher, I see no redeeming values. What is that for a star?She's a truck driver's wet dream."
His anger cools into a tone of sad resignation to the way things are in television today. "Bring them up to a microphone without a piece of paper," he says softly, "and what have they got to say?"
These days, having largely foresworn the formula grind of series TV, Hanrahan is concentrating on several personal projects which fit his "quality" and "meaningful" criteria. One of them is his screenplay about a man and his dog which is set in Cleveland.
Jack describes it as an hysterical comedy. "It's all the things a dog does
to screw a man's life up. It's based on the premise that we keep dogs to have
someone dumber than us around."
But why shoot it in Cleveland?
"Cleveland gives you the atmosphere for it." Hanrahan explains. Every time I've written anything of real value, I've had to go back to that setting for most of it. I still feel more comfortable with family and friends there because there's no putting on an act; there's no bullshit. I've incorporated that into the story. And the neighborhood bars where I used to hang out. And 53rd and St. Clair, where I got my first job with the Cleveland Shopping News.
"And it's so much easier writing from truth. The humor flows. You don't even have to make jokes up. It flows. It flows like water through the sewers of Cleveland."
Hanrahan's seeming inability to resist taking a shot at Cleveland is only consistent with his way of looking at everything from two opposite but equal perspectives. He has got an honest love-hate relationship with Cleveland.
True anger surfaces when he reflects on what he sees as Cleveland's unreasoning provincialism, such as the time Cleveland killed a TV show that Jack was working on.
As any TV viewer knows only too well, network program executives practice religiously the old adage that "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Laugh-In was such an instant hit that rival networks were sure to crank out carbons. And they did. Even Laugh-In producer George Schlatter did.
In February 1969 Schlatter produced a show called Turn On that pushed Laugh-In's razzle-dazzle production techniques even further. As a writer for this ABC show, Hanrahan designed some (then) provocative graphic art around a young woman's navel.
Turn On may hold claim to be the only show to have been turned off by a network after just one airing. "The show went off because WEWS in Cleveland raised such a furor over it," Hanrahan says. And ironically it was Jack's old boss at Channel 5 who pulled the plug on the grounds that his viewers shouldn't be subjected to such a show. When a network affiliate in a Top 10 TV market refuses to carry a show, it's just as lethal as if the order to axe the show had come from midtown Manhattan.
The memory rankles Jack. Cleveland's Midwestern conservatism is his biggest, dislike about his hometown. "'Best location in the nation,' " he grumbles sarcastically. "Sometimes I wonder for what?"
Nonetheless, on his trips back to New York or when he's on the road touring as an actor (he recently went on a nine-month tour with the The Prisoner of Second Avenue), Hanrahan stops in Cleveland to see family and friends.
On a recent visit, he found his mother saying, "I was just talking to your father . . . . "
"But, Mom," he interrupted, "it's been 20 years since Dad died."
"Well, you know what they say about news travelling slow in Cleveland," said
Mrs. Hanrahan, delivering the line with the smooth mock seriousness of a seasoned
comic. Who says humor isn't an inherited talent?
This story was originally published in the January 1976 issue of Cleveland Magazine.