Herbert Schlosser: He Put Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and Saturday Night Live on the Air

From a New York Times obit by Richard Sandomir headlined “Herbert Schlosser, a Force Behind ‘S.N.L’ and ‘Laugh-In,’ Dies at 95”:

Herbert Schlosser, a longtime NBC executive who put an indelible stamp on the network by negotiating Johnny Carson’s first deal to host “The Tonight Show,” putting “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” on the air and overseeing the development of “Saturday Night Live,” died on Friday at his home in Manhattan….

Mr. Schlosser was president of NBC in 1974 when he faced a late-night predicament: Carson no longer wanted the network to carry repeats of “Tonight” on weekends. But pleasing Carson, the network’s most important star, led to an inevitable question: What would NBC televise at 11:30 on Saturday nights?

Mr. Schlosser wrote a memo that laid out the fundamentals of an original program that would be televised from NBC’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center; would be carried live, or at least taped on the same day, to maintain its topicality; would be “young and bright,” with a “distinctive look, a distinctive set and a distinctive sound”; would “seek to develop new television personalities”; and would have a different host each week.

“Saturday Night is an ideal time to launch a show like this,” Mr. Schlosser wrote. “Those who now take the Saturday/Sunday ‘Tonight Show’ repeats should welcome this, and I would imagine we would get much greater clearance with a new show.”

“Saturday Night Live,” which followed much of Mr. Schlosser’s formula, and which was produced, then as now, by Lorne Michaels —made its debut on Oct. 11, 1975, after Game 1 of the World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. Mr. Schlosser had attended the game in Boston with Bowie Kuhn, the strait-laced baseball commissioner, and invited him to his hotel room to watch.

“He didn’t laugh. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s Bowie,’” Mr. Schlosser recalled in “Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live’ as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests” by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. “And then after a while, he started to chuckle. And then he’d actually laugh. And I figured, ‘Well, if he likes it, it’s going to have a wider audience than most people think.’”

Mr. Michaels said that Mr. Schlosser had been a staunch backer of the show. “We wouldn’t have been on the air without him,” he said. “‘Live’ was his idea, not mine. He just believed in the show. He protected it.”

Mr. Schlosser, a lawyer, had been an executive in NBC’s business affairs department, where he negotiated programming contracts to carry, among other events, the 1964 Summer Olympics from Tokyo and talent deals like ones with the comedian Bob Hope, whose specials were a mainstay of NBC’s prime-time schedule….

In 1966, Mr. Schlosser was named NBC’s vice president for programs on the West Coast…Over six years, he was involved in developing numerous shows, among them some with Black stars, like the popular comedian Flip Wilson’s variety series and “Julia,” a sitcom starring Diahann Carroll as a single nurse with a son. He also hired the first woman and the first Black person to be vice presidents in the department.

Mr. Schlosser particularly championed “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a fast-paced satirical series that made its debut in early 1968. It was considered outrageous then for the political and risqué humor of its skits, performed by a cast of future stars including Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin.

George Schlatter, the executive producer of “Laugh-In,” recalled that Mr. Schlosser had protected him from those within NBC who found the show’s content offensive….

Herbert Samuel Schlosser was born on April 21, 1926, in Atlantic City, N.J….After serving stateside in the Navy, he studied public and international affairs at Princeton University, graduating in 1949. Two years later, he graduated from Yale Law School.

He started as a lawyer with a Wall Street firm, but the insurance work there bored him, and he moved to Phillips Nizer Benjamin Krim & Ballon, a Manhattan firm with many film and television clients. That experience led to his hiring around 1957 as general counsel of California National Productions, a film, merchandising and syndication subsidiary of NBC. He later became its chief operating officer before moving to NBC’s business affairs department in 1960.

As a lawyer with the department, he led the talks to bring Carson to NBC to replace Jack Paar as the host of “Tonight” in 1962. At the time, Carson was with ABC as M.C. of the game show “Who Do You Trust?”…

Mr. Schlosser rose steadily at NBC. He was named executive vice president of the television network in 1972; promoted to president a year later; and named president of the National Broadcasting Company, the network’s corporate parent, in 1974 and chief executive in 1977….

But Mr. Schlosser was ousted in 1978 and replaced by Fred Silverman, who had engineered ABC’s rise to first place in prime-time ratings as its chief of programming.

Mr. Schlosser’s standing had been hurt by NBC’s inability to produce a new prime-time hit series the previous season and climb out of third place….

Mr. Schlosser didn’t have to go far for his next job: He was named an executive vice president of RCA, NBC’s parent company. His assignment was to develop software for RCA’s SelectaVision videodisc project. Three years later, he was named to run all of RCA’s entertainment activities, which also included RCA Records (but not NBC)…

Mr. Schlosser once recalled his certainty that “Saturday Night Live” could be a part of NBC for a long time, just as “Tonight” and “Today” were. Another model of late-night success at NBC under his watch was “The Midnight Special,” a series featuring pop and rock performers, that was broadcast on Fridays after “The Tonight Show” from 1973 until 1981.

“NBC had this tradition of succeeding with shows like that,” he told the Television Academy. “To me, it was a no-brainer.”

Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”

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