When Ernie Kovacs passed away in 1962, comedy on television stepped back from pushing the boundaries of technology and settled back into a comfort zone. Most variety shows followed the simple formula of host monologue, long sketches with celebrities, guest musical act and stand up routine. It was the classic put on a stage show mentality. All of that changed on September 9, 1967 when NBC threw away the recipe and gave an hour of primetime to two nightclub comics and a supporting cast of around a dozen players. The show was rapid fire as it would cut away to gags and jokes that didn’t require a six minute sketch to get to the punchline. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was a shock to the system, but quickly became a hit and changed the way comedy was approached. The fast edits pushed video editing.
American culture was changing in the late ’60s and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In constantly cracked comic observations about this shift. They were not recycling the jokes from Steve Allen’s old show. They were as naughty as they could be on Mondays at 8 p.m. Which turned out to be pretty outrageous for the family hour. They featured women in bikinis with messages painted on their bodies like the saucy paperbacks in the drugstores. There were plenty of uptight folks who complained, but they could watch The Lucy Show on CBS. The second season on the air, Laugh-In became the top ranked show on TV and Lucy’s latest sitcom Here’s Lucy was knocked down to #9. The show became addicting because it was something that viewers hadn’t seen in both the comic pacing and the faces on the screen.
Laugh-In was at the forefront of women’s liberation, but not merely by doing a few jokes in support of the movement. Among the fresh faces were quite a few female performers who would go on to amazing careers after the show including Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley and Lily Tomlin. There had been break out female cast members on other shows such as Carol Burnett on The Gary Moore Show. Laugh-In had so many women that made an impact on the show. They weren’t playing second fiddle to the guys. Ruth Buzzi played everything for glamour queens to tramps, but her biggest character had her looking homely to be the purse swinging Gladys Ormphby. Goldie Hawn out did Dick as goofball during her time between Rowan & Martin. She made them both straight men. She would win an Oscar for Cactus Flower while still on the series. Jo Anne Worley was so brilliantly over the top with her Dame of the Theater vibe. In the case of Lily Tomlin, she was able to create so many memorable characters that she kept the series fresh in the third season. Her Ernestine pegged telephone operators as nosy in their customer service. Since she worked for the dominating Ma Bell, she was bullet-proof in her attitude. The five and a half year old Edith Ann sat on a huge rocking chair and reflected on life with a kid perspective on adult situations. This multiple character work is what eventually won her the Tony for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. There were numerous other women who appeared in the cast over six seasons including Barbara Feldon from Get Smart, Judy Carne and future Match Game superstar Patti Deutsch.
While it was still the late ’60 where Southern network affiliates weren’t happy with interracial casts, Laugh-In didn’t care. Flip Wilson was always lurking on the set during the early episodes. Chelsea Brown, Stu Gilliam and Johnny Brown made their marks on the cast. During the final season Willie Tyler and Lester came on board. That’s right, Laugh-In had a black wooden cast member. Perhaps the most astonishing cast member was Pigmeat Markham. The night club comic was in his ’60s when the brought him on board to mainly deliver his “Here come da judge” routine on a recurring courtroom sketch. Laugh-In was a diverse cast.
There were several talented white guys in the cast too including Rowan & Martin. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were the hottest duo act on the nightclub circuit since Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Except Dan didn’t sing and Dick didn’t make that whining noise. Dan was sophisticated with his pipe and tux. Dick was that goofball who so badly wanted to be sophisticated, but was kinda dumb. They were a perfect tandem for the show. Arte Johnson specialized in European characters. His most iconic character was a German solider hiding behind a fern. He was also the dirty old man Tyrone F. Horneigh who lusted for Gladys only to be beaten down in the end. Henry Gibson slipped into the role of a hippie poet carrying a big flower and strange rhymes. Alan Sues was so campy that he made Paul Lynde look butch. There seems to be no proof if he was really gay, but he was rather revolutionary in not holding back. His Big Al the Sportscaster paved the way for ESPN personalities. Richard Dawson and Larry Hovis escaped from Hogan’s Heroes onto the set. Dawson would run into many of his Laugh-In castmates as a regular on Match Game.
The first season did have musical guests including Strawberry Alarm Clock, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, The Temptations, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But having the band mime for four minutes would really kill the pacing. The show made goofy videos with the band and the cast. But it still felt a little awkward and slowed down the rapid fire zingers. Very quickly the musical guest was eliminated like when Saturday Night Live axed the Muppets. Even when the show had the cast singing a song, they were frequently interrupted. The series did elevate Tiny Tim into a national sensation. His falsetto, ukulele and fashion sense could not be ignored and he struck big with his take on “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
While the show didn’t have major sketches there were constant set ups that happened during a show. After Rowan and Martin came out for a routine, the duo would open the doors to a wild cocktail party. There would be drinks, go-go dancers and plenty of short jokes that would viewers would use the following Friday when they’d hang out on a patio for a grilling and a Schlitz. “The Mod, Mod World” dipped into the latest trends that changing the culture. The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate was awarded to someone who did something really dumb. This was before 24 news and the internet so it was quite a dishonor to receive. “Laugh-In Looks at the News” had Dick and Dan reporting from the past, present and future. Some of the jokes were too real especially when they talked about President Ronald Reagan, a decade before the reality. “Sock It to Me” was just a brilliant piece of nonsense where cast members and guests would say, “Sock it to me!” They be hit with pies, water or clubs in the ensuing mayhem. At the end of the 1968 election, Richard Nixon delivered the line and somehow it made him appear less uptight. Some have pondered if this little comic moment was enough to let him beat Hubert Humphrey. Nixon didn’t even get hit with anything. Humphrey turned down his invite. Of course now, we expect presidential candidates to not merely make a cameo on Saturday Night Live, but host the entire night.
Laugh-In is perfect to watch on DVD because a lot of the humor is about the times. The jokes reference a lot of names that were in the news which might leave modern viewers a bit stumped. But now you can immediately pause the DVD and hunt down the name in Wikipedia. The same is true for some of the visual jokes written on bathroom walls and Goldie’s back. You can hit pause button and read it properly.
The impact of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In huge. Before setting up Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels was a writer. Beyond the humor, Lorne must have understood that having creative female cast members is important. The rapid pace of humor also prepared American audiences for mayhem of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and quick sketches on Dave Allen At Large. I would dare to argue that the series predicted the comic gif file with Arte Johnson’s quickie bits of guy in yellow raincoat crashing his tricycle. They were memes before the internet could handle picture files.
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series matters on so many levels. There’s still a lot of great comic moments even if you don’t have a full grasp of Nixon era history. There’s amazing slapstick and constant variations on gags. Dan and Dick with their gang really had their pulse on the times and understood where hilarity would go into the future. They still can sock it to you after nearly half a century since they sped up the jokes.
Currently Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series is only available through Time-Life’s website at TimeLife.com/LaughIn . Make sure you order the version with 38 DVDs.
The video is 1.33 full frame. The series was shot on video with a few bits on 16mm. Even with standard resolution, the transfers bring out the details of ’60s and ’70s fashion. You don’t miss any of the campy joy from Alan Sues. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono. The mix is fine as Gary Owens does his best announcer bits. The episodes are Closed Captioned.
Laugh-In Pilot Episode (53:33) is what surprised audiences on September 9, 1967. The show caused enough of a buzz that NBC put the series on the air in the Winter of 1968.
George Schlatter Interview (40:35) is an extensive interview with the executive producer who got the whole shebang rolling on network TV. He’s got plenty of Emmys on the shelf behind him.
25th Anniversary Cast Reunion Highlights (14:56) reunites many of the cast in the early ’90s. The main focus is when everyone is on the stage discussing their time on the show. Dan Rowan had already passed away, but Dick Martin does double duty. There’s even Tiny Tim with Goldie, Ruth and Lily.
Laugh-In Blooper (24:18) has the cast cracking up. A lot of the clips are in black and white since back in the day, the 35mm dailies were originally printed in black and white. You’d only request the good takes be printed in color to save costs. There’s a lot of great crack ups even extra footage of Nixon’s appearance at the tail of this special.
Still Laugh-In (52:20) is a tribute to George Schlatter at Pepperdine University. Among the people talking are Larry King, Arte Johnson, Lily Tomlin, Jo Anne Worley, Tim Conway and Goldie Hawn.
25th Anniversary Cast Reunion (48:52) is the complete special and only featured on the Bonus DVD included in The Complete Series boxset. There’s a lot more talking from the cast about the series.
How We Won the Emmys (1:47) has them receive an award from Elizabeth Montgomery.
Bonus Interviews include Dick Martin, Gary Owens, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Arte Johnson, George Schlatter and Alan Sues.
Time-Life presents Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Starring: Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Flip Wilson, Goldie Hawn, Ruth Buzzi, Arte Johnson and Lily Tomlin. Boxset contents: 140 Episodes on 38 DVDs. Released: June 14, 2017.
Tags: Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, Time life