Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In

Socking It to You

Although each Laugh-In episode would offer an introductory welcome by Rowan and Martin, very little of what followed adhered to the traditional rules of the variety format. Guests were not asked to do their specialties but thrown into the middle of rapid-fire running gags or given split-second cameos, repeating nonsensical comments that were then edited into the context of whatever episode it best fit. (A cast regular tossing off the line “You bet your sweet bippy,” might be followed by a notable such as Lena Horne facing the camera and asking “What’s a bippy?”). Those same guests were dropped through trap doors, splashed with water, and encouraged to get silly in the “nothing sacred” spirit of the ensemble of regulars.

mong the program’s ever-changing roster of principals, few of them plied their trade exclusively as comedians prior to the series, but instead came from a variety of entertainment fields, including sketch stage revues, situation comedies, and straightforward acting assignments. During Laugh-In’s six-season run it was the cast members from its first two years who stayed most firmly in the minds of viewers, they being Ruth Buzzi, whose specialty was portraying forlorn, pocketbook-swinging frump Gladys Ormphby; bellowing Jo Anne Worley, always on the lookout for forbidden “chicken jokes”; “sock it to me” gal Judy Carne; deliberately camp Alan Sues; soft-spoken Henry Gibson, who presented flower power poetry recitals; deliriously kooky Goldie Hawn, whose infectious laugh reflected the program’s giddy embrace of all things silly; and Arte Johnson, whose wealth of characterizations included a nervous and somewhat dim Romanian, a dirty old man who mumbled lecheries at Buzzi’s Gladys, and a sneaky German in a soldier’s helmet who appeared behind a plant at the climax of each episode to remark “ver-r-r-ry interesting . . . ” The last was just one of many bits of shtick that branded the series as nothing like any other then on the air or before it.

Because the pace was fast, the writers were able to toss in potentially incendiary political barbs (directed at both the right and the left, in order to keep a safer balance than had TW3 or had another program that made its liberal stance felt and often ran into problems with the network as a result, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), innuendos that often kept the censors on their toes, and seemingly taboo references like the Pill, racial inequality, marijuana, and the hopeless war in Vietnam. Jokes ran along the bottom of the screen like news bulletins or popped up in comic book clouds (my personal favorite: “George Wallace . . . your sheets are ready”), filmed inserts filled in the segues between jokes (notably variations on an anonymous figure clad in a yellow rain slicker plowing his tricycle into inanimate objects), and the more shapely female regulars gyrated like go-go dancers to display a body full of painted-on slogans. Audiences soon came to expect such set-pieces as the cocktail party, wherein cast members froze in the midst of dancing to deliver one-liners right at the camera; the news, which opened with a catchy tune (“We just love to give you our views . . . la-da-dee-DAH!”) performed by the female ensemble dressed in a series of kitschy costumes and featured often potent swipes at current events as well as predictions of future ones (a joke about California Governor Ronald Reagan being U.S. president twenty years down the line was treated as just that, a joke); the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award, bestowed upon U.S. organizations that were getting away with injustices; and the joke wall, with the cast delivering zingers that ranged from topical barbs to moldy clinkers that seemed to have their origins in burlesque.

The tone was crazy and self-deprecating (no program ever had such fun denigrating itself), often witty, and just as frequently, shrill and dumb, though that seemed to be part of the plan too. Three or four eggs might be laid in a row, leading up to a genuine belly laugh or wry observation that made the whole chaotic enterprise worth the while. Because it all zipped by in so breathless a fashion, unhampered by conventions, one was inclined to forget that sometimes it was the presentation, not the joke itself, that was so much fun. It was maddening or a breath of fresh air, depending on one’s feelings about the traditional forms of television variety, but it was so colorful and energetic that viewers couldn’t help but tune in for more, week after week, because the unpredictability of it all promised its share of surprises.

In a few short weeks following its January 22, 1968, debut on NBC, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In had not only triumphed in the ratings but would eventually manage to challenge and then top two CBS stalwarts in the same timeslot, Gunsmoke and The Lucy Show (which, pointedly, both had their roots in the fifties, the former directly, the latter indirectly). The show became nothing less than a phenomenon, climbing to the number-one spot in the Nielsen ratings for its first two full seasons. It brought forth a slew of tie-in merchandising, from books to record albums to wastebaskets to bubblegum cards; news articles offering both praise and condemnation; all those catchphrases; and the expected imitators, who couldn’t seem to capture its insane rhythms or make the impact that it did.

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Photo credits—George Schlatter Productions; NBC/Photofest