Today is the birthday of the awesome character comedian Henry Gibson (James Bateman, 1935-2009). His stage name was a play on that of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. To give you some idea of their respective Q factors, when we were first assigned An Enemy of the People in high school, the joke that the dramatist’s name sounded like “Henry Gibson” was universally understood.
Gibson’s signature bit (pictured above) was to recite doggerel poetry with a southern accent while holding a large flower, concluding with a modest little bow. Most of us know this bit from when he was a cast regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1971) (the bit was so popular you can hear Paul McCartney’s impression of it on bootlegs from the Beatles’ Get Back sessions). But Gibson had been doing this bit for years, first bringing it to television in the early sixties on all the variety/ talk shows of the day: Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop etc etc. From thence he got some promising roles in films like Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) and Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid (1964). Then came the Laugh-In phenomenon. In addition to his little poet, Gibson also played a tea sipping minister in the party scenes, and a variety of other roles.
After Laugh-In he was a frequent guest star on tv series from Love American Style in the early 70s through Boston Legal towards the end of his life, and he became an important part of Robert Altman’s stock company, with roles in The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), A Perfect Couple (1979) and HealtH (1980). Other notable films he appeared in over the years (among many) included The Blues Brothers (1980), Magnolia (1999) and Wedding Crashers (2005).
To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including television variety like Laugh-In), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous