Created by Ed Friendly (Little House on the Prairie), and George Schlatter, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In premiered as a one-shot NBC special on September 9th, 1967. Viewers had rarely seen the kind of rapid-fire, free-form series of politically, and sexually charged gags and skits the series offered, led by co-hosts, exasperated straight man Dan Rowan, and “dumb” guy Dick Martin. The specials success led to a weekly series that began airing in January of ‘68 on Mondays at 8pm – a time slot the show would keep until going off the air in May of 1973.
America was going through a very turbulent time in the late 1960’s; Laugh-In was a direct reflection of that. The civil rights movement, Vietnam War, sexual revolution, and the women’s liberation movement were just a few of the issues the series examined through a comedic lense on a weekly basis. Combined with a frenetic pace, a quick editing style that hadn’t ever been used before on television, Laugh–In went to number one in the ratings, where it stayed, throughout the second and third season.
Buttressed by regular segments such as “Sock It To Me Time”, “It’s a Mod, Mod World” and the show-ending joke wall (full of one-liners), the lack of a hard and fast structure gave the writers and performers the freedom to respond to current issues in the news, and when necessary, tailor a segment to a guest star. While Laugh-In is a product of its time, and some of the issues and individuals discussed could leave some viewers stymied (Google is your friend!) it’s also a bit scary just how relevant some of the issues remain today.
The frenetic pace allowed the writers to sneak in possibly incendiary political and social barbs, that kept network censors on their toes. If a joke doesn’t quite work, just wait ten seconds for the next one. References to taboo subjects such as marijuana, racism, and the pill popped up in messages that scrolled across the bottom of the television screen, and via the shapely, bikini clad female cast members, dancing go-go style, displaying a body full of painted on slogans.
While there had been break out female cast members on other shows such as Carol Burnett on The Gary Moore Show and Mary Tyler Moore of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Laugh-In featured several women who went on bigger things. The performer most often associated with the series, Goldie Hawn and her goofball personality made both Rowan and Martin her straight men for the first three seasons. Of course, her ‘performances’ in a bikini during the show’s go-go body graffiti segments did nothing to hurt her profile on the show. Goldie’s infectious giggle, and frequent ‘flubs’ just made her seem authentic somehow. 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 stage vibe, one wonders if she drank twelve cups of coffee before each taping, She’s the Energizer bunny! The multi-talented Ruth Buzzi could play anything from glamour queens to tramps, but it was her portrayal of the homely, purse swinging Gladys Ormphby that resonated most with fans. Joining the series during the third season, Lily Tomlin created several memorable characters. Her nasty telephone operator Ernestine was a customer service nightmare, while five-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann sat on a huge rocking chair, reflecting on adult situations from a child’s perspective. Tomlin would go to win a Tony for her one woman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Several other women starred on Laugh–In during its run including Eileen Brennan, who later stared with Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, Judy Carne, Barbara Feldon of Get Smart, and future Match Game star Patti Deutsch. So, while Laugh-In took on the women’s liberation movement as part of their comedy, the series deserves plaudits for seeing women as vital to the cast as men, at a time when it was still fairly unusual.
As popular as Laugh-In was in some parts of the country, it was controversial in others. It was the late 1960’s, and Southern network affiliates weren’t happy with the integrated cast. Laugh-In refused to budge. Comedian Flip Wilson was a regular guest, Pigmeat Markham was brought on during the 1968-69 season largely to perform his “heyeah (here) come da judge” routine, after Sammy Davis Jr. performed it as a guest on the show. Chelsea Brown, Stu Gilliam, Johnny Brown (later he played Nathan “Buffalo Butt” Bookman on Good Times), and Willie Tyler and Lester also made their mark over the course of Laugh-In’s run.
By the time Laugh-In entered its second season, the show was a phenomenon. Some of Hollywood’s biggest names clamor Edwards to appear on the show. Milton Belle, Mel Brooks, Johnny Carson, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Sally Field, James Garner, Rod Sterling, and Shelley Winters are just a few notables who appeared on the show. In 1969, even President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon stopped by for a quick hello!
The second season also saw the arrival of Alan Sues, whose over-the-top style fit in well with the show – his mannerisms were obviously played to for gay stereotype laughs – but he was also one of the first obviously gay players on network television. He joined Arte Johnson, who had a knack for European characters. His German soldier behind a fern with the catchphrase Verrrry interesting,” was his most iconic character. He also portrayed the dirty old man Tyrone F. Horneigh who lusted for Gladys only to be beaten down in the end. soft spoken Henry Gibson was a natural playing a hippie; carrying a big flower, and spouting unusual rhymes. Heck, as the sixties came to a close, Laugh–In had even elevated Tim into a national sensation. His falsetto, ukulele and “unique” fashion sense were difficult to ignore as he warbled through “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
The series struggled a bit through its last two seasons, largely because most of the original cast had left (the exceptions being the hosts, Ruth Buzzi, and announcer Gary Owens.) A new cast that included Richard Dawson of Hogan’s Heroes fame was brought in, and while they all tried their level best, the series had lost its spark. By the time the sixth season roled around, there weren’t even that many celebrity cameos. Once again, American tastes were beginning to change, and the final episode of Laugh-In aired on March 12, 1973.
While I’m just a few years too young to have watched Laugh–In when it originally aired, I became a big fan of the series when a limited number of episodes began airing on Nick at Nite in 1987. To finally have access to the entire, unedited series courtesy of Time Life is a welcome development.
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, the series was shot on video, with just a few segments in 16mm. Even in standard definition, there’s a surprising level of detail in the various ‘60s and ‘70s fashions. The audio is Dolby Digital mono, which works well for this release. All dialogue, ambient sounds, and music is clear, and concise. Subtitles are included in English.
The following extras are available:
- Laugh-In Pilot Episode (53:33) From September 9, 1967, the pilot that launched it all. Some segments would become fixtures on the series, others, not so much.
- George Schlatter Interview: (40:35) In this newly recorded piece, the executive producer covers a variety of topics concerning Laugh–In, including the cast, various skits, network censors, and more.
- 25th Anniversary Cast Reunion Highlights (14:56) reunites many of the cast in 1993. The main focus is when everyone is on the stage discussing their time on the show. Sadly, Dan Rowan had already passed away, but Dick Martin shines bright. There’s even footage of Tiny Tim with Goldie, Ruth and Lily.
- Laugh-In Bloopers (24:18) Most of these are in black and white, because at that time 35 my dailies were done that way to cut costs. There are a few laughs here.
- 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
- Bonus Interviews: include Dick Martin, Gary Owens, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Arte Johnson, George Schlatter and Alan Sues.
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.
Movie title: Laugh-In (1968-73)
Actor(s): Dan Rowan, , Dick Martin, , Flip Wilson, , Goldie Hawn, , Ruth Buzzi, , Arte Johnson,, Lily Tomlin