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Paul Keyes, award-winning writer for 'Laugh-In'; at 79

By Tom Long
Globe Staff / January 10, 2004

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Paul W. Keyes's credits on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" went beyond producing and comedy writing. Mr. Keyes cajoled Richard Nixon to appear on the satirical TV show and exclaim "Sock it to me" to the camera. Mr. Keyes also hid Goldie Hawn's cue cards to induce her to giggle and helped make the elfin former go-go dancer a star.

Mr. Keyes, 79, a Dorchester boy who followed the bright lights of show business to New York City and Los Angeles, died Jan. 2 in Woodland Hills, Calif.

He began his career as an announcer at a radio station in Portland, Maine. He left the post to serve in the Army during World War II. After victory in Europe, he was assigned to the Special Services unit that operated an Armed Services Network station in Munich, where he wrote news reports and produced his own weekly show.

When he returned to Boston after the war, he had difficulty resuming his radio career. He credited Edwin O'Connor for giving him his start.

"Ed was a production director at WNAC," Mr. Keyes recalled in a story published in the Globe in 1961. "When I came in to see him, he looked over my stuff and listened to my story with interest. Next thing I heard, O'Connor had resigned to write a book and had recommended that I be taken on in his place."

The book, of course, was "The Last Hurrah."

Mr. Keyes dreamed of working for a network, so he soon moved to New York City and began writing every day.

"It was tough trying to make a go of it, " he recalled. "My stuff was slow selling."

He supported himself in New York by writing sketches for Gordon Swan's "Swan Boat Show" on WBZ in Boston, which provided him with a salary of $35 a week.

"There's no platform in this game, no escalator for success," he said in 1961. "You learn your craft by hard work, until you find you're earning more by working less, which means you are beginning to get recognition."

Mr. Keyes wrote for Kay Ballard's nightclub act, scripts for the Senator Claghorn character on the "Jackie Gleason Show" and summer-stock material for Tallulah Bankhead before getting a job at NBC. There, he worked as a writer and producer for Steve Allen and Jack Paar, early hosts of the "Tonight Show."

While at the "Tonight Show," he met Richard Nixon and they became friends. They kept in touch when Mr. Keyes moved to Los Angeles to write for the "Dean Martin Show" and later for "Laugh-In."

"Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" first appeared as a TV special on Sept. 9, 1967. It returned as a series that ran from Jan. 22, 1968, to the fall of 1973.

The sassy, satirical show with the jump cuts, jive talk, and breezy sketches had a strong influence on TV programming that followed. Popularized on the show were such catchphrases as "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls," "You bet your bippy," and "Sock it to me."

Mr. Keyes won an Emmy Award as a writer for the show in 1968 and another as its producer in 1969.

He then left the show, because "the program has become slanted, and vulgar, and dirty," he said in a story published in the Globe at the time. Some suspected he disapproved at the potshots taken at Nixon on the show, but Mr. Keyes denied it.

He returned to the show 18 months later.

Mr. Keyes won another Emmy Award in 1974 for producing "The American Film Institute Salute to James Cagney."

He was nominated for seven other Emmys during a long career in TV, which included writing for the Academy Awards and People's Choice Award shows.

A pal of movie actor John Wayne and singer Frank Sinatra, he often wrote bits for each.

His behind-the-scenes role in the appearance of Nixon on "Laugh-In" produced one of the most bizarre moments in TV history.

"Nixon had a reputation for no sense of humor," George Schlatter, the creator of "Laugh-In," said in a story published last year in the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Keyes persuaded him to appear on "Laugh-In" to change his image. "Paul convinced him that this would expose him to a different kind of audience as a good guy," Schlatter said.

So on Sept. 16, 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the jowly former vice president with the 5 o'clock shadow glared into a TV camera and exclaimed, "Sock it to me."

Millions of TV viewers were alternately appalled and impressed.

"We tried to get Humphrey to appear on the show," said Schlatter. "We chased him all over, but he wouldn't do it."

Two months later, Richard Milhous Nixon beat Hubert Horatio Humphrey in the presidential election.

Mr. Keyes leaves two brothers, Frank J. and Robert E.; and a sister, Helen G. O'Reilly. A funeral Mass was said Thursday in California.