One of the strangest success stories of the mid-1960s was created by Pat Paulsen, who escaped oblivion thanks to Tom and Dick Smothers, and, incredibly, won an Emmy award (Special Classification of Individual Achievements) for his work on their show during the 1967-68 season.
I never met Paulsen one-on-one, but participated in a group interview when he and several other CBS performers gathered in Chicago in July, 1967, to promote the network’s fall line-up.
|Akron Beacon Journal, August 6, 1967
CHICAGO — Pat Paulsen still doesn’t believe it.
That’s why he doesn’t like to discuss it; fearing, perhaps, that mentioning it might make it disappear.
Or that to acknowledge it might destroy the zany privacy he has enjoyed without it.
“It” is success. And it arrived suddenly and unexpectedly six months ago when he became a regular on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
Paulsen was in Chicago recently to face a group of reporters during a CBS publicity junket. His emergency as a TV personality has been so swift that several press people didn’t know him. For that matter, neither did a few of the other “stars” who participated in the weekend affair.
Reporters assumed Paulsen was enjoying his moment in the sun, that he hoped to be receive a lot of air time this fall,, with an eye toward being offered a show of his own.
“Are you kidding?” Paulsen asked. “I don’t want to do any more television than I’m doing now. And if they try to get me to do more on the ‘Smothers Brothers Show,’ I’ll fight ‘em. Television exposure can kill you, and I don’t want to be a victim.”
He claims he doesn’t want to do his own series. “What I’d like to do is movies,” he said. This isn’t an original statement, of course, but it was unusual to find someone in Paulsen’s situation — a semi-unknown — expressing it. But this much we already know about Paulsen: His deadpan delivery successfully disguises the sincerity of his every statement.
Paulsen became an overnight sensation on February 6 when the Smothers Brothers’ show became part of television’s so-called “second season.” He had a simply job — support the stars during comedy skits, and be featured occasionally as a character called the Vice President who spoofs television editorials.
“We never expected such a reaction,” said Paulsen. “At the end of each editorial, we tell people they can write to us to receive a copy of the night’s message. After the first editorial, we received 2,500 letters, and they increased every week. Our last editorial got more than 15,000 responses.”
Paulson swore that eventually — 1973, perhaps — all letter writers will be answered.
Originally, Tommy Smothers was supposed to do the editorials. “He rehearsed the first one, but decided it wasn’t for him. That’s how I got the job.”
Those editorials are the creations of Hal Goodman and Al Gordon, formerly writers for Jack Benny.
“The words are theirs,” said Paulsen, “but the double talk and slapstick are mine.” And it’s the double talk as much as anything that has made the editorials such a big hit.
Paulsen met the Smothers brothers a few years ago when he sold them some comedy material.
He was performing at a Pasadena, California, nightclub called The Ice House last winter when the brothers Smothers convinced their producers to catch Paulsen’s act. They liked what they saw, and Paulsen was signed to the series, then in the planning stage.
This ended a long period of frustration for the 36-year-old Paulsen, who resents the fact he had to wait until this year for his break. This resentment spilled out when a reporter asked if Paulsen had ever performed in a Playboy club.
“No, and it burned me up,” Paulsen replied. “Nightclubs like Playboy have ignored me for five years and hired comedy acts that aren’t nearly as funny as I am.”
Until recently, Paulsen was a coffee house kind of comic — casual in dress, satirical in presentation, beat in appearance. He wore a goatee during his Ice House days.
His lean years were marked by some desperately funny attempts to generate publicity, such as the time in Victoria, Canada, when Paulsen advertised he would walk on water.
“I studied yoga in Burma for 15 years,” he lied with a straight face. “That’s how I learned to levitate.”
About 2,000 people paid to see Paulsen walk off a Victoria deck — and immediately sink.
“The water was hostile,” Paulsen explained. “No one can walk on hostile water, especially in front of hostile people. On the other hand, I’ve walked on friendly water lots of times.”
There’s also the matter of Paulsen’s cranium paintings. That was another gag that got him some attention last year when he demonstrated his technique on a Los Angeles television show. He still had a goatee at the time. To create his cranium paintings, Paulsen hangs by his heels from a large tripod over a canvas placed flat against the floor. The next step was to dip his goatee into bright red paint.
“That’s my soul color,” he joked, again with straight face.
Then he swings back and forth, brushing his goatee on the canvas, producing something resembling a Rorschach inkblot. A red Rorschach inkblot.
“I also dip an ear into the paint to give the canvas a gentle ear daub.”
Another stroke is “the sensual curving jaw swirl.”
Most of his answers were given in the same put-on manner, making his perhaps the only interview enjoyed more by the performer than the reporters. Paulsen always got the best of an exchange.
He also played a game called Collect the Ashtrays.
Noticing most of the reporters were smokes, Paulsen quietly roamed the room, hoarding ashtrays. He’d butt his cigarette, then push the ashtray aside. When he had to butt again, he’d steal an ashtray from another reporter, return to his chair until he had collected nearly every ashtray in sight.
The reporters, not wanting to interrupt the interview, said nothing, even though a few of them wound up with ashes in their palms.
Paulsen treated everything lightly, particularly television. He recalled the panic on the Smothers Brothers set when a network official learned the word “heterosexual” was in a script.
“He told us we couldn’t say a word like that on television . . . so we didn’t.”
He also recalled an Elaine May-Tom Smothers skit about movie censors. The skit itself was censored.
Those two incidents are reasons Paulsen isn’t excited about finding success in television comedy.
It’s difficult to become excited when you’re constantly aware that you’re being watched by Big Brother in the form of a scissors-wielding network executive.
Paulsen's most famous stunt began on "The Smothers Brothers Show" in 1968 when he announced he was running for President. Eventually he ran for the office more times than William Jennings Bryan. It was a joke, but because he maintained a poker face throughout, some folks thought he just might be serious. Several of the statements he made during his campaigns can be found on Pat Paulsen quotes on azquotes.com. My favorites:
"I read that one in five Americans think Elvis is alive. I want to find those morons and get them registered to vote for me."
"No taxes. Let’s just tip the government 15 percent if they do a good job."
And this one which seems particularly apt in the Donald Trump era:
"All the problems we face in the United States today can be traced to an unenlightened immigration policy on the part of the American Indian."
Paulsen's television career cooled considerably after the Smothers Brothers' show went off the air,, but he continued to pop up now and then. He co-owned a theater in Muskegon, Michigan, and over the years produced and starred in several plays.
Born in 1927, Paulsen joined the Marines during the closing days of World War Two. He attended San Francisco City College and worked a variety of jobs before settling on a career as a comedian. His work on "The Smothers Brothers Show" won him an Emmy.
He was married three times and had three children. Pat Paulsen died in 1997 in Mexico where he had gone to have experimental treatment for colon cancer.