Occasionally, a show is so entrenched in the time and culture it debuts in, it becomes almost impossible to describe or understand away from its original setting. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were nightclub comics who co-hosted a special called Laugh-In in 1967. The name was a play on words based on the love-in’s and sit-in’s happening in the 1960s. The special was so popular it was turned into a weekly series. I think of Laugh-In as Sesame Street for adults. Both shows debuted in the late 60s and had a rapid-fire approach, continually moving on to the next segment so the viewer would not get bored. The show captured the counterculture movement and the lime green, turquoise, fuschia, deep orange, bright yellow, and paisley flowers kept our eyes moving as quickly as the jokes did. The show lasted six seasons.
Regular cast members who went on to other careers included Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Richard Dawson, Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Dave Madden, and Flip Wilson.
Numerous celebrities flocked to the show. Movie stars that were reeled in included John Wayne, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, Edward G. Robinson, Sally Field, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth. Noted musicians included Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore, Johnny Cash, Perry Como, Liberace, Bing Crosby, Cher, Rosemary Clooney, and Liza Minelli. Sports stars tackled the chore including Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlin, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Howard Cosell. Comedians who laughed their way on the show included Rich Little, Don Rickles, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, and Carol Burnett. Classic tv stars who accepted starring roles were Tim Conway, Carl Reiner, Steve Allen, Jim Backus, Ernest Borgnine, Eve Arden, Andy Griffith, Desi Arnaz, and Wally Cox.
The format rarely changed from week to week. Rowan and Martin opened each show with a dialogue; Rowan acted as the straight man, and Martin took on the gullible role. Then the regular cast, along with celebrities, danced against a psychedelic background, firing off one-liners and short gags. Comedy bits, taped segments, and sketches filled in the rest of the hour and always ended with Rowan telling Martin to “Say goodnight, Dick” and Dick replying, “Goodnight Dick.”
Some of the regular features were:
The Cocktail Party where the cast stood around spouting politically and sexually suggestive jokes.
Letters to Laugh-In where the cast read letters.
It’s a Mod, Mod World where go-go dancers danced in bikinis with puns and word play phrases painted on their bodies.
The Farkel Family about a group of red-headed, freckled family members.
The Flying Fickel Finger of Fate Award where dubious achievements were celebrated.
Laugh-In Looks as the News was comparable to the Saturday Night Live news sketches of today.
New Talent Time showing various weird skills.
Many of the regular cast members had their own skits that were repeated during the series’ run:
Judy Carne was always tricked into saying “Sock it to Me” which then caused her to get doused with water, fall through a trap door, or endure some other indignity. Sometimes celebrities ended up being the ones to say “Sock it to me,” the most famous being Richard Nixon when he was campaigning for president.
Arte Johnson played Tyrone, an inappropriate senior citizen who tries to seduce geriatric Ruth Buzzi as Gladys, forcing her to eventually hit him with her purse.
Henry Gibson came on stage holding an oversized paper flower, reciting poetry.
Lily Tomlin performed skits as Ernestine, a telephone operator or Edith Ann, a young girl sitting in a rocking chair. (Personal note: When I was in 4th grade, I performed an Ernestine and an Edith Ann skit for our talent show. Why a 9-year-old was watching Laugh-In and the school approved the skits, I can’t say, but I remember getting a lot of compliments. And Lily Tomlin didn’t sue me for stealing her material!)
Alan Sues portrayed Uncle Al, a children’s show host, who was short tempered and often in bad shape from his late partying nights.
Flip Wilson was Geraldine.
Jo Anne Worley would say “Bor-ing” in the midst of jokes.
Goldie Hawn as the ditzy blonde.
The series also became known for some of its catch phrases including “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,” “You bet your sweet bippie,” “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” “Is that a chicken joke?,” “Sock it to me,” “Here come de judge,” and “Verrrry Interesting.”
The show was one of the highest rated shows in the late 1960s. It was in the top 4 of the top 40 shows for its entire run. It won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The Nielsen polling determined it was the most-watched show in seasons 1 and 2.
The show had its own magazine for a year. Trading cards were sold with catch phrases and images from the show. Several records were produced capturing the humor of the time. There was even a set of View-master reels made, as well as lunch boxes and other memorabilia.
Laugh-In debuted fifty years ago, but still feels new and edgy. Because the show has not been syndicated in re-runs, it is hard for the current generation to imagine how very different this show was from anything else that appeared on television before it. The closest show to capturing any of its essence since then is Saturday Night Live. This was a time when everything was changing: civil rights, Vietnam, women’s lib, the hippie lifestyle, psychoactive drugs, anti-authoritarianism, freedom of speech and assembly, and environmental concerns, especially littering and pollution.
The Generation Gap was a real concept in the 1960s but this show might have come as close as anything else to bridge that gap. Families sat down together to watch the show. Many of the phrases still have a life of their own decades later even thought decades of kids have never seen the show. Plan your own little sit-in when you check out a couple of the you-tube videos to get a flavor of what the series was like.