A Ver-r-r-ry Interesting Look Back at Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In

By Barry Monush

Last May we lost one of the key figures of late 1960s television, Dick Martin. Because the last sixteen years of his professional life were spent mostly behind the scenes, directing episodes of several series, Martin was no longer a familiar face to modern viewers and wasn’t quite given his due. Once upon a time he was one half of a dying breed, the Comedy Team, being jester to straight man Dan Rowan, their names part of the title of a show that helped define an era, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Considering the fact that 2008 also marked the 40th anniversary of that program’s debut, there wasn’t exactly reams of press on that milestone either. (Not so much as a single person clapping, which was the memorably cheeky final joke that punctuated each episode of Laugh-In). Hoping to make up for this glaring omission, we look back at this cultural touchstone.

Perhaps the least incendiary way to determine whether someone grew up during the late sixties is not to discuss the controversy over Vietnam, the prevalence of the drug culture, the repercussions of the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, or the widening generation gap, but to gauge their reaction to the phrase “you bet your sweet bippy.” Understandably, this silly expression holds no meaning whatsoever to pretty much anyone who achieved consciousness after the Nixon administration, but is almost certain to bring a smile of recognition to those of us for whom television was the be-all and end-all of existence during the latter part of the sixties.

It was during this time that the medium made its heralded transition to “living color” and a new degree of social freedom was sweeping the American landscape, as reflected in pop culture, through hair styles, acknowledgement of the sexual revolution, and the admission that people were ready to unwind and escape the oppression of the uptight, previous generation.

“Bippy” was a word bantered about with regularity on the variety series of its day, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, along with a plethora of other loopy catchphrases and images that became ingrained in the public consciousness in a big way. “Here come de judge,” “ver-r-r-r-y interesting,” “look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,” “say goodnight, Dick,” and “sock it to me,” had only to be tossed off by your average citizen at the time for instant recognition, not to mention earning them some degree of “hip” credibility, as “un-hip” as these expressions all may sound to the unversed. Laugh-In, as the title was (and continues to be) most frequently abbreviated—much to the chagrin of its two hosts, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin—was television’s ultimate reflection of the “mod” look, styles, and attitudes of the time. Although only select aspects of it can be absorbed meaningfully by most modern-day audiences, there is no overestimating its impact in the first two years it ran, 1968–69, as it took the conventions of comedy and variety, spun them on their heads, and helped create a whole new way of looking at the medium.

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Photo credits—George Schlatter Productions