Exclusive Book Excerpt: The Time Judy Garland Tried to Kill Me

From his memoir Still Laughing: A Life in Comedy, George Schlatter recalls the perils of working with the iconic singer and actress!

The following is taken from Still Laughing: A Life in Comedy, the new memoir by legendary producer and creator of NBC’s Laugh-in, George Schlatter. Still Laughing paints a vivid portrait of the Golden Age of Hollywood with never-before-told stories from Schlatter’s nearly 70-year career, including his longtime friendship with Judy Garland. The excerpt below is reprinted here by permission of the author; all rights are reserved.

I knew that doing a television show was going to push Judy Garland’s attention span into another level—a very, very tense, dangerous level. Which meant that at any time she could explode in rehearsal and become the Judy Garland everyone was afraid of. It happened early on when I was producing her variety show, when she started yelling about the lights and sound. I had to do something, so I started singing “Over the Rainbow.” Of course, everyone in the place froze . . . and she froze . . . I froze. She looked at me and said, “What the hell are you doing?”

And I said, “I just thought that if you were going to produce, I would sing.”

This did not have the effect I hoped for. She got really upset, and she stomped off the stage. She blasted up her little yellow brick road, stormed into her trailer, and slammed the door. And I thought maybe I’d gone a little too far. Maybe? Anyway, I ran right after her and I went in her trailer. I didn’t know what to say, so I got up on her coffee table, and I held a match under the sprinkler. A logical thing to do. Who hasn’t done that? And she said, “Now what are you doing?”

I said, “If you don’t apologize to me, I’ll drown you.”

She screamed, “Apologize to you, you asshole? You embarrassed me in front of the crew. What do you mean you’re going to sing ‘Over the Rainbow’?” She was ranting.

I said, “Judy, it’s going to take another thirty seconds for this sprinkler to go off, so you better apologize.”

Since she didn’t want her trailer destroyed, she said, “All right, all right, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Asshole.” (She loved that word.)

Considering I had won, I said, “See that it doesn’t happen again.” Big mistake.

George Schlatter with Judy Garland during their time making The Judy Garland Show together in 1963.

As I got down off the coffee table, she pulled a lamp out of the wall and chased me down the steps, through her candy-striped makeup room, and down her little yellow brick road, yelling, “I’ll get you, I’ll get you, you son of a bitch, I’ll get you. Asshole!!!” And of course it struck me as funny: I’m being chased down the hall by America’s little girl and sweetheart, and she is swinging a lamp to try to kill me. It struck her as funny too, and we both laughed. We fell down on her yellow brick road laughing. Then we went back into the studio. The whole experience maybe lasted under three minutes.

Now that we had recovered from me singing “Over the Rainbow,” Judy figured she was going to test me again. She had another blowup and yelled, “Fuck you, George, I’m not going to do this,” just to see what I would do. I was ready for her. We had prepared an audiotape of explosions and machine guns and crashing bells and sirens and screams. It was terrifying to listen to this. So, when she got mad and started ranting and raving, I had them play this tape really loud. Of course the tape scared everybody in the studio. Maybe I had forgotten to tell the crew. Judy fell down on the floor and started screaming, “My God, they’re shooting at me.”

When the tape ended, I said, “All right, cut the tape.”

And she looked at me—she was really mad now—and said, “You scared me, YOU ASSHOLE!”

I said, “You scare me too . . . So . . . Judy. Don’t fool with me . . . I have an army.”

And then she laughed again. Break that coil—break that coil. Laugh—tremble—laugh.

But the all-time best way to get her to relax involved flatulence. She loved fart jokes. A good fart joke would absolutely cause her to lose it. One day she got mad at me onstage, and I played a long, loud selection of farts. The biggest and loudest farts anyone ever heard, and they were edited to play a melody. Forget about it. She almost couldn’t sing that night. I mean she just tore her throat out, screaming and hollering and pounding on the stage. And I said, “Judy, please don’t test me anymore. Do you know what I had to eat to make that recording? I am exhausted.”

To the day she died, she had a copy of that tape, which she said was the most treasured memento of our relationship. Sometimes she would call the house at 3:00 a.m. and just play that tape.

George Schlatter changed the face of television when he created and produced the landmark sketch comedy series Laugh-In. Throughout his long and storied career, he also created and produced the TV series Real People, produced the first five years of the Grammy Awards, and hundreds of hours of variety series and specials featuring many of comedy and music’s biggest stars, as well as two Presidential inaugural opening ceremonies. He was also the creator and producer of The American Comedy Awards, which honored and celebrated comedic artists and performances – the Awards ran on network television for 15 years. Schlatter has received numerous honors and awards including 25 Emmy nominations, and three Emmy awards, plus Television Critics Association Awards, NAACP Image Awards, Golden Globes, the Directors Guild Award, the Producers Guild “Man of The Year” and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.