Digby Wolfe

The Midas Touch Comic  (June 4 1929 - May 2 2012)
"Do you believe in the hereafter? - You do? Then you know what I'm here after."

On a late September evening in 1968, US television audiences witnessed something which turned out to be a landmark in broadcasting. Since Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In first aired at the beginning of that year, viewers knew to expect anything. Famed for its zany characters, slapstick sight gags and satirical wisecracks, the show was watched and loved by just about everyone, capturing the candy-coated psychedelia of the decade.

Laugh-In also featured regular celebrity cameos: in the first season Terry Thomas had played Moses, Sally Fields a robot and the Bee Gees had performed a madrigal. The producers had to make the opening show of season two particularly special, and had John Wayne, Bob Hope and Zsa Zsa Gabor lined up.

But then a chance moment arose. One of the show’s scriptwriters, Paul Keyes, was helping with speeches for the Republican candidate Richard Nixon who was in the adjacent studio on a news show. Keyes asked Nixon to come next door and deliver a one-liner. His ‘Sock it to me!’ straight to camera was the forerunner to all presidential candidates realising the value of a TV comedy opportunity.

The show continued for five more years winning Emmys and Golden Globes for its hosts, writers, producer and regular performers including Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson and Ruth Buzzie. One person involved with the show rarely gets the recognition he deserves. He coined the show’s name, sourced its presenters and developed its format. He was an English comic called Digby Wolfe.

Digby Wolfe was a remarkable force in the world of comedy but like so many comics, was his own worse enemy. Wolfe created an unpredictable persona and left a trail of contradictory stories in his wake. Many details of his life appear to be hazy or trumped-up and comparative accounts published in books and online often conflict. The inconsistent profile he seems to have created also led to what he felt was insufficient recognition.

Wolfe was born in 1929 in London - though even this fact is contestable since some obituaries and books record it as 1925, Norway. There is certainly a possibility that he may have been born abroad as his father was an international banker who travelled frequently; so too his mother who worked as an artist for Vogue magazine. No definitive account exists.

 

What is true, is that at four years old Wolfe moved to Felixstowe, Suffolk, with his mother and two sisters after his father’s death by misdirected golf ball. Wolfe continued to live on the coast for the next decade: during WWII he took refuge listening to comedy radio and was influenced both by British stars like Tommy Hadley and Arthur Askey, and by contemporary American comedy. Later in life, Wolfe mentioned having heard a Fred Allen joke about a scarecrow during this period – despite being just twelve, Wolfe felt sure he could match it.

Wolfe’s mother wanted him to become a doctor but his ambition was to work in theatre. She may have fuelled this dream herself by filling his head with fictional stories from an early age, and even named him Digby after a character from Beau Geste. At fifteen, Wolfe became an apprentice stage-designer in London, and after a few years had established himself as the handsome boy-about-town. He began to host nights in west end jazz clubs and cabarets, and co-wrote a revue with music by John Pritchett and Norman Dannatt at the tiny Irving Theatre off Leicester Square. 

Wolfe made his west end stage debut in R.F. Delderfield's The Queen Came By at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1949. This was followed by minor comedy parts in The Happy Family at The Duchess (1951), The Young Elizabeth at The Criterion (1952-53), and more fittingly for his future career, the revue Intimacy At 8.30 (1954-55) with Ron Moody and Joan Sims also at The Criterion. In addition he had small roles in several films including The Weaker Sex (1948) with Ursula Jeans and Cecil Parker, and Worm's Eye View (1951) with Ronald Shiner and Diana Dors.

During this period, Wolfe continued to perform in revues and comedy cabaret, and was a frequent host at Winston’s nightclub in Mayfair. He also appeared regularly on TV magazine shows and in 1956 hosted a brand new series, Variety Showtime, and recorded a self-authored pilot for ATV called Wolfe at the Door. Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtrey, the two other leads, became busy with other work commitments so the show was never developed into a full series, as Wolfe would not consider substitutes.

Wolfe’s resentment at this outcome was voiced during an evening of drinking with the comedy actor, Harry Fowler, at The Buckstone Club in London. Grumbling about Jacques’ and Hawtrey’s new film project, Wolfe then boasted that he could get anyone onto television. Fowler - showing his south London barrow boy credentials - pointed to the young lad polishing glasses and said ‘All right, how about Ronnie here?’

The part-time barman in question – Ronnie Corbett - was also a fledgling stand-up comedian. Wolfe took up the challenge, first securing some minor parts for young Ronnie in his script for The Yana Show (1956), and then as Wolfe’s valet in a brand new BBC sit-com written by sketch writers Sid Green and Dick Hills. This show - Sheep’s Clothing (1957) – was a roaring success, and gave Wolfe the opportunity to play a work-shy ne'er-do-well. 

Wolfe became the darling of the BBC. Whenever a handsome face with a witty remark was needed, he was their first choice. Appearing on the panel of the TV show Juke Box Jury presented by David Jacobs, Wolfe’s knowledge of popular music was seen to be woefully lacking: he wasn’t even aware that Buddy Holly had died. Nevertheless, when Jacobs had chickenpox, Wolfe became the host at short notice.

In 1960, Wolfe’s BBC contract was up for renewal. After a heated exchange of views he left the Corporation without agreement since he believed his value to be greater than the recompense offered. He approached ATV again but drew no interest. They felt let down by his refusal to develop Wolfe at the Door a few years earlier. Wolfe decided to leave Britain and establish a career elsewhere: he tried South Africa first but only stayed long enough to see the legendary Sophie Tucker in a revue – which included an impressive young Irish comic, one Dave Allen.

Wolfe continued to move southerly, ending up in Australia. Sheep’s Clothing had been televised there and was well-received by audiences, so he soon found work and became once again a regular face on panel shows. At the end of 1960, Wolfe hosted the satirical variety show Revue 61, recommissioned as Revue 62 in 1961 (!) Wolfe enjoyed great success and artistic freedom in Australia, and was able to fly in Dave Allen to be the show’s regular comic – an early boost to Allen’s own career.

Unlike the BBC, Channel Seven executives doubled Wolfe’s money at contract renewal time, eager to grant his every wish. When he mentioned his love for Australia in an interview, and claimed to be considering buying a bed and breakfast so he might bring his mother over from England to run it, the channel bought shares in a hotel for Wolfe, desperate not to lose their star. 

Digby Wolfe introduces Harry Secombe on the first episode of Revue 61.

A high wage bought Wolfe a high life – which led, inevitably, to a rapid dive. Wolfe lived in a handsome Sydney property on South Whale Beach, and regularly took the coastal road between home and the studio. Along this stretch of highway, the local police pulled him over countless times for speeding but he failed to take the violation seriously.

"I just cut down on my driving and drink more carefully"

 One night after being stopped again by an officer, an altercation occurred leading to Wolfe’s arrest and the immediate revoking of his license. When studio executives were informed, they abruptly axed Revue 62 in mid-season. 

Too much of a loose cannon for the Australian television companies, Wolfe moved across to radio. He was a natural, originating a local daytime show which was soon being enjoyed by most of the East coast. Within three months it was syndicated across the whole of Australia. Despite being back on top, Wolfe was unable to convince television executives of his worth, so one night in 1963 he decided it was time to return to Great Britain.

This time he moved to America - touting a superlative, if somewhat exaggerated resumé – and soon began to secure regular work on US television. Wolfe’s English accent made him a perfect guest on late night talk shows such as That Regis Philbin Show and The Jack Paar Program, and he was a repeat booking on What’s My Line? He was engaged for cameo parts in many hit US sit-coms, playing a stereotypical posh Brit in The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie and The Monkees. This regular work also included becoming a staff writer on the TV series The Wild Wild West. 

By 1967 it was commonplace to see Wolfe at Hollywood parties and events. His (unsubstantiated) claims of writing for The Goons and That Was The Week That Was certainly appear to have opened doors. At a cocktail party in LA while drinking with the TV producer George Schlatter (left), he once again bragged that he could get anyone onto television. As a great fan of the Vegas double act Rowan and Martin – mere B-listers at the time – Schlatter seized on Wolfe’s boast, pressing him to originate a TV vehicle for the pair.  

And he did. Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In was a Wolfe creation, from the show’s title to the casting of British actors (Judy Carne and Jeremy Lloyd) to the hiring of the British writer, Barry Took. He also discovered an avant-garde New York performance artist called Tiny Tim, who Wolfe felt would add to the show’s zaniness. 

Laugh-in launched as a one-off special on NBC but it soon became a weekly series. It played on British screens on BBC2 from 1968 to 1971, but Wolfe remained only for the first series after which he developed a rival show, Turn-On TV, which was dropped after just one episode.

In 1967, Wolfe had a casting for Disney’s The Jungle Book. The studio was looking for artistes with Liverpudlian accents to voice the Vultures. Since Wolfe claimed he had warmed up the crowd at an early Beatles concert in Liverpool, and it was the Beatles who they were seeking to imitate, he nabbed one of the parts. It was he and fellow vulture voiceovers Chad Stuart and Lord Tim Hudson, plus Bruce Reitherman (Mowgli) who sang the barbershop-style That’s What Friends Are For (below).

In the seventies, Wolfe wrote on several US TV specials for stars including Cher, Goldie Hawn, John Denver and Shirley MacLaine but found little inspiration working on such high-ranking shows. Despite these artistic achievements and the co-creation of a new show for puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft of HR Pufnstuf (right) fame, he returned to Australia in 1976.  

Within a few weeks Wolfe was announced as the new host of the Australian This Is Your Life. The period of the late seventies through to the early eighties saw Wolfe apparently working globally, writing for Goldie Hawn (left) and George Burns in the States, creating a UK sit-com called Rep for Granada TV and making television appearances in Australia. 

In 1985 Wolfe became a part-time writing teacher, and in 1992 was appointed as Visiting Professor at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Theatre and Dance. He developed his academic profile, heading the Dramatic Writing program until his retirement in 2004. Even while teaching, Wolfe continued to be involved in commercial writing and is credited for the storyline of All the Queen’s Men, a 2001 film starring Eddie Izzard (right) and Matt LeBlanc. 

Almost every comedy project which Digby Wolfe inspired or pursued developed into something special. The vast majority of those performers championed by him became outstanding in the comedy field. George Schlatter called him “the joke junkie”, an apt name for the creator of Laugh-In’s characteristic conveyor-belt humour. Long before international stardom could be generated with the help of the internet and social media, Wolfe built a career across three continents. He died in Albuquerque, New Mexico on 2nd May 2012.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Malson L. Kantor M. Make ‘Em Laugh (2008)

Corbett R. High Hopes: My Autobiography  (2001)

Erickson H. From Beautiful Downtown Burbank: A Critical History of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" (2009)

Neuwirth A. They'll Never Put That On The Air: Breaking Taboos in TV Comedy (2006)

Special Acknowledgement to Dick Fiddy of the BFI