television: Buzzi Memory 

Remembering a brush with fame that left an imprint.

(Just for the record, I interviewed all four at one time or another and only one of them turned out to be a crashing bore — the one who had a top 10 hit at the time.)

But twice in the past month — during which, as any American with a pulse knows, NBC is celebrating its 75th anniversary — I've seen several clips from "Laugh-In" and have been reminded of the really excellent day I spent with Ruth Buzzi.

Fans of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" might suspect that Buzzi would be as interesting off-screen as on. She was a mainstay of the program — in fact, along with co-hosts Dick Martin and Dan Rowan and announcer Gary Owens, she was the only cast member to stick with the show from beginning to end, from January 1968 to May 1973.

Her best-loved character was Gladys Ormphsby, a frump who wore a hairnet with the knot centered on her forehead, a brown sweater and a rust dress and carried a no-nonsense black felt purse. She was the very picture of drab. But Gladys harbored secret notions that she was attractive to the Dirty Old Man (Arte Johnson) who snuggled up to her on a park bench each week. "Would you like a Walnetto?" he'd inevitably ask, and Gladys, supposedly insulted, would beat him about the head and shoulders with her frumpy purse — while the audience laughed themselves silly.

I was in the Air Force in Germany when "Laugh-In" started. We'd get the show a week late, but we loved it, and the only seat in the squadron dayroom at 8 p.m. on Mondays was on the floor, it was that crowded.

So when Master Sergeant Buzzi, the head of the base dental clinic, asked me if I'd like to interview Ruth Buzzi for American Forces Television, I jumped at the chance. He was her brother-in-law, and Buzzi and her husband were coming to Germany for a visit during the show's hiatus.

I fell in love with her the minute she walked into the AFTV studio. Instead of glamming up for the interview, she dutifully wore her frumpy Gladys outfit, complete with hairnet and purse. We chatted a few minutes while the GI technicians adjusted the lights. She was sincere, funny, and, above all, real.

"Ask me if I'd like a Walnetto as soon as we start," she told me. "Then brace yourself." She laughed.

We started filming, I asked the Walnetto question, and, as I had suspected, she began to beat me about the head and shoulders with her black felt purse. The crew was eating it up.

As we settled down, I asked her what Gladys kept in her purse. She cackled and asked me if I had ever seen a dog-food commercial with a talking dog. I told her I had (remember, this was before computer animation), and she said she'd show me how it was done.

She opened the purse and took out — a slice of white bread! Then she smushed it up and looked at me: "Open your mouth." I did. To my surprise and the crew's delight, she began to wad the smushed-up bread between my gums and my cheeks. "Now, using only your tongue, get the bread out of your cheeks," she said. I did what she said and looked into the monitor: sure enough, I could see how they made those dogs in the commercials appear to be talking.

The Ruth Buzzi interview was perhaps the most fun I ever had on TV. But what she said at the end of the segment also sticks with me. Our interview was in 1969, at the height of her success. But the country was in chaos over the war in Vietnam, and not everybody liked people in uniform.

"'Laugh-In' is a great way to make a living, and I love it," she told me and the camera. "But what you guys in uniform are doing is so much more important.

"And I just want to take this chance to say 'thank you' from all the folks at home."

When the interview wrapped, Gladys got a big hug from every GI on the crew, including me. S


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