Monday, December 5, 2011

Rant #630: He Laughed In, But Never Came Out

Alan Seus died a few days ago. He was 85 years old.

For many people, the name of Alan Sues means absolutely nothing, but to a generation of baby boomers, he was one of the biggest TV stars of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Sues was a cast member on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, probably the most irreverent, off the wall show in television history. Changing the way we watched TV, the original show lasted five seasons, helped to make huge stars out of many of its cast members, including Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, and as far as I am concerned, has never been equaled to this day.

Alan Sues was a member of the zany troupe which included Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Henry Gibson, Joanne Worley, Judy Carne Dan Rowan and Dick Martin themselves, and many others. They brought a youthful zing into our homes in the late 1960s, reshaping the variety show forever--and probably leading that format to its death in its own way just a few years later.

Sues played an integral role in the proceedings. He got under the radar of the censors, somehow, in his playing of the generally effeminate character on the show.

His greatest achievement, and character on the show, was his portrayal of the less than masculine sportscaster, Big Al, where all the wispy posturing came right out to the fore. No one ever said the character was gay, but even in this then young kids' mind, there was something "funny" about this character. He not only made me laugh, but he made me think.

His character was the perfect play on the ultra-masculine sportscasters of the day, and his parody of them is one of the most memorable in that show's history.

He also played Uncle Al, the Kiddie's Pal, which was less successful, but still funny.

And the skits on the show often put him in situations where his "gay" attitude was allowed to shine, even though it wasn't broadcast that he was gay.

Remember, this was the late 1960s. Things started to be lampooned that hadn't been tackled in prior years, but one of the taboos continued to be homosexuality.

There were several actors who appeared regularly on TV who were gay, even though they either didn't admit it for years or never admitted it while alive. That list includes Raymond Burr, Roger C. Carmel, Robert Reed, Paul Lynde and Richard Deacon. They didn't admit it because during those years, it might have meant the end of their careers.

However, in Lynde's case, even younger viewers kind of knew there was something "odd" about this guy, and I think the same thing can be said for Sues.

In his private life, he never admitted to be gay. He was a military veteran, married, and actually had a long-running act with his then wife, who he divorced n the late 1950s but was friendly with until his death.

But there was something with this guy, and as a young kid watching Laugh-In, I thought he was absolutely hysterical. And I mean funny. I probably didn't even know what "gay" was at that time.

After Laugh-In rode its course, Sues continued to be active. He appeared in numerous Peter Pan peanut butter commercials in the 1970s, and again, he played that effeminate-type character. Nobody minded, as long as the peanut butter flowed.

He appeared on Broadway and several films, and at the time of his death, was actually putting together a somewhat autobiographical audio book on his life in show business.

Sues was a definite pioneer on television, but to me, I am able to look past that, and just admire him as a terrific comedian, a guy I really liked on Laugh-In.

And maybe that's the whole point, and the point he was going for. Acceptance comes in many forms, and for Sues, the medium of television was his way to get the word out that he could be as funny as anyone, no matter what skin he was in.


  1. One thing needs to revised, most importantly; his last name is Sues. Aside from that, a nice tribute to the man!

    I caught up with him on Laugh-In reruns from the early '80s and later on Trio, and he definitely made me laugh. Thinking of Big Al ringing his bell and saying, "Featurette! Featurette!-- Oh, I love that tinkle!" always brings a smile to my face.

    I agree a lot of the material he was given to perform reflected who he truly was in an "under-the-radar" way, and it worked because he never "camped" it up to excess (except whenever he did an imitation of Jo Anne Worley). Compared to Paul Lynde, he was subtle!

    At that time, "coming out of the closet" was very much a no-no for actors and actresses alike. Alan's Laugh-In co-star Judy Carne had her acting career fizzle out when (according to her autoboigraphy) it was discovered the former Mrs. Burt Reynolds was linked with an [unidentified] actress in the early '70s. This info didn't hit the tabloids, but enough of a stink was raised that roles for her on TV shows (like Love, American Style) dried up quickly. She was all but blackballed from Hollywood.

    Thank goodness times have changed since then that Alan Sues lived long enough to see the progress acheived.

  2. Sorry about the name mixup. I don't know what I was thinking.

    Anyway, you bring up some interesting points. I had heard that rumor about Judy Carne, but had all but forgotten it until you brought it up. Of course, her off-screen behavior (drinking, drugs, big mouth) probably didn't help her in Hollywood.

    I think Laugh-In is pretty much forgotten today, but it was absolutely revolutionary way back when. I wish more of it was available on DVD, and I mean its six seasons, not just the first two.

    To me, Sues stood out from the rest of the cast, and it had nothing to do with his sexuality, which, as I said, probably went over my young head anyway (although there was something about him that fascinated me). He was a fine comic actor, and the stuff that they got away with on that show was pretty incredible. And he fit right into that.

    Alan Sues R.I.P. You made this guy laugh, laugh and laugh some more way back when.

  3. Oh, yes, Carne did wreak some havoc, though what she did then now seems tame in the age of Paris, Britney, Lindsay and Kardashians.

    In her autobiography, Carne noted the actress she spent time with had significant connections within the film and TV industries. After the affair ended badly, the lady may have been seeking revenge by using her influence, preventing Carne from getting acting jobs.

    Another favorite Alan Sues line of mine has him (in motorcycle garb) saying, "He pushed me! He pushed me! All the way to Cleveland, he pushed me!" :o)

  4. The writing on "Laugh-In," led by Arte's brother Coslough Johnson, was terrific. The double innuendos they got in there were hilarious, even though at the time I doubt I got them. I was too young. Now, as an adult, I can watch that show a bit differently, but laugh just as hard.

    Carne was Laugh-In's first "it" girl and should have had a much bigger career than she did. Too much of everything, I guess. Funny, when she was married to Burt Reynolds, she was a bigger star than him!

    Side note: both Carne and Sues have small roles in "The Americanization of Emily."

  5. True about the writing. The infamous "bald" joke that Judy delivered was among the most subversive, as well as the rare appearances of the initials C.F.G. (Crazy F___ing George), relating to show creator George Schlatter!

    Schlatter formerly worked with Ernie Kovacs, and when he created Laugh-In, Judy was his equivalent to Edie Adams. Eventually, Goldie Hawn would catch on more with viewers; she, plus the arrival of Lily Tomlin, are factors that led to Carne's exit from the show (in addition to her off-screen behavior).

    Oh, yes, I know of The Americanization of Emily. Also, another notable Alan Sues role was in the Twilight Zone episode "The Masks", where the then 38 year-old man (according to Wikipedia) played a high school student!

  6. Laugh-In was simply a great show. Lots got through, but is there a reel out there of outtakes and stuff that was cut by the censors? I will bet there is, and it is probably incredible what they did cut as opposed to what they left in.

  7. A surviving Laugh-In "blooper reel" has circulated for years on random bootleg and public domain videos, from VHS tapes through DVDs.

    In fact, type in "laugh-in bloopers" on YouTube, and you will get some nice results!

  8. Nice tribute, many fond memories of Laugh-In and Alan. I loved Laugh-In so much i stopped watching the Avengers!

  9. Thanks for the comments. Yes, I do seem to remember a gag reel circulating some years back, and I guess it has migrated to the Internet. Such a creative show. Lorne Michaels said in the past that "Saturday Night Live" was a cross between "Laugh-In" and "The Monkees," so the influence of Rowan and Martin's show is still being felt today. I think Laugh-In was a lot funnier than SNL ever has been, but I will probably get an argument from some people on that.



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