Classic Television Thursday #50 – Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1973)

li1Last time I mentioned that the cornpone comedy Hee Haw was heavily influenced by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, (generally referred to simply as Laugh-In) so it seemed only fitting this week to take a look at the original show itself.

I suppose I’d never really given the name of the show much  thought, and it’s one of those things that I suppose should have occurred to me before, but just never had, but for those wondering where the name Laugh-In came from, it was a play on the sit-ins, love-ins, be-ins, and other -ins that were popular forms of protest during the civil rights and anti-war protests of the times.

Which seems fitting, since Laugh-In is very much a product of its time, a fact that, looking at it from the world of today, can be both a positive and a negative.

li2Certainly there is much about the setting, the atmosphere, and the topicality of so many of the jokes that plants it firmly in the late 60s and early 70s of its original creation and broadcast and can make it hard for viewers today, who may not have much familiarity with the general milieu and attitudes of the period to miss many of the jokes that are made, but the rapid-fire pace of the show and the simple quantity of material  gone through in each episode which made it seem so much ahead of its time then serves it well now, as there is still quite a lot of it that remains timeless.

The show began life as a one-shot special which aired on September 9, 1967, and proved popular enough for NBC to bring it back as a regular series which aired on the network at 8pm eastern time on Monday nights.

li3Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, as suggested by the full title was hosted by comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. In traditional form for this type of duo, Rowan was generally the straight man while Martin was the dimmer-but-slicker comedian. However, though they got top billing, Laugh-In was an ensemble show featuring, over its six season run such famous comedians and actors/actresses as Arte Johnson (who eventually wrangled himself a “with… credit during announcer Gary Owens’ introduction to the show), Henry Gibson, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Larry Hovis, Judy Carne, Richard Dawson, Dave Madden, Sarah Kennedy, Jeremy Lloyd,  Pigmeat Markham,, Pamela Rodgers, Barbara Sharma, Jud Strunk, Alan Sues, and Teresa Graves.

The show generally opened with a short intro/dialogue between Rowan and Martin before segeing into a bit which became known as the “cocktail party” during which the cast members would dance to a few bars of music then when the music would come to a sudden stop one or two of the cast would be focused in on to deliver short jokes. Then the music would start up again, the dancing would begin again and after a few seconds, there would be another stop for another joke.

After this it would be off to the races with a number of split-second edited one-liners, pre-taped bits, and recurring segments. At the end, there would be another short bit of dialogue, Rowan would tell Martin to “Say goodnight, Dick” to which Martin would reply “Goodnight, Dick”.

li5(A quick aside here: though many people, at least those old enough to remember George Burns and Gracie Allen, might think that this was a throwback to the closing lines of the comedic couple’s Television show (and the radio show which preceded it), they never actually used that line. Though George would  say “Say ‘goodnight’, Gracie”, she never actually responded with “Goodnight, Gracie”)

After that, the cast would appear in the “joke wall” a psychedelically colored wall which had different panels which would open up to allow them to get in one last line even as the credits were rolling.

Laugh-In was the source of an amazing number of well-remembered catchphrases and one-liners as well as recurring characters. Among these was “Laugh-In Looks at the News” which could be considered one of the precursors to Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update. Other memorable lines and characters include:

  • Judy Carne being tricked into saying “Sock it to me”, which led to her being doused with water or otherwise assaulted.
  • “The Mod, Mod World” which comprised brief sketches on a theme interspersed with film footage of female cast members go-go dancing in bikinis, their bodies painted with punchy phrases and pithy wordplay.li8
  • “Here come de judge!” – The Judge character was originated on the show by British comic Roddy Maude-Roxby, though the catchphrase wasn’t used until Flip Wilson came on the show as a guest star, and then  nightclub comedian Pigmeat Markham, who actually originated the phrase was brought in for a season. The most popular Judge, however, had to be Sammy Davis Jr., who really made the catchphrase his own.
  • The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award, saluted actual dubious achievements by the government or famous people.
  • Wolfgang the German soldier – a character created and portrayed by Arte Johnson who would comment on the previous gag by saying “Verrry interesting”, often following that up with lines such as “…but shtupid!”
  • Tyrone F. Horneigh, another Arte Johnson character who was a dirty old man usually seen coming on to Gladys Ormphby ( played by Ruth Buzzi) seated on a park bench, which would usually end with her beating him with her purse.
  • Henry Gibson’s poet, who would hold an over-sized flower and read offbeat poems.li7
  • Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine who was an obnoxious telephone operator with no concern for her customers and a very unique laugh.
  • Edith Ann, another Lily Tomlin character who sat in an oversized rocking chair and told short monologues which she would end with the phrase “…and that’s the truth” with the final “th” stretched into a Bronx Cheer or raspberry.
  • Big Al , an obviously gay sports anchor played by Alan Sues, who was continuously ringing his “Featurette” bell, which he called his “tinkle.”
  • Uncle Al, the Kiddies’ Pal , another Sues character, the short-tempered host of a children’s show, who usually went on the air with a hangover.
  • “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls”
  • “You bet your sweet bippy!”
  • “Beautiful downtown Burbank”
  • “One ringy-dingy…two ringy-dingies…”
  • “A gracious good afternoon. This is Miss Tomlin of the telephone company. Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?”

And those are just a sampling.

One other note before we take a look at a sample episode. It’s kind of amazing when you think about the fact that all of the cuts that comprise an episode of Laugh-In had to be done by hand. This was well before the advent of computer editing of videotape which means that all of the edits were done by physically cutting the master tape and then physically splicing that tape together. That had to be quite a feat.

Okay, so what I have for you today is a sample episode of the show from its second season, which features as its guests Davy Jones, Robert Wagner, and Greer Garson.









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