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Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (NBC 1968-1973, Dan Rowan, Dick Martin)

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When the ‘Summer of Love’ hit the American public in 1967, it sent out a shockwave that shook up both society and the entertainment world. As people began to experiment with new ways of living their lives, entertainers began to experiment with new ways of getting their message across. Out of the spring of this entertainment revolution bloomed Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In, a free-form comedy show that mixed topical satire and Vaudevillian shtick at a whiplash speed. The end result was show that earned its laughs at a fast and furious pace, inspiring countless later films and TV programs with its machine-gun style of comedy.

The key to Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In was that there was no key. The plotting of sitcoms and the emcee/introduction setup used by variety shows were rejected in favor of a stream-of-consciousness barrage of gags that flew by at a gag-a-second. The emphasis was on shtick, catchphrases and mannerisms repeated endlessly until they became part of everyone’s consciousness. Despite this sense of repetition, Laugh-In never bored viewers, because it seemed to move faster than the speed of sound: by the time a normal show had delivered one gag, Laugh-In had fired off five and had more ready in the wings.

As a result of its shtick-based style, Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In spawned an impressive array of recurring sketches, including ‘Letters To Laugh-In,’ ‘The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award,’ and the ever-popular ‘Cocktail Party.’ The latter sketch depicted several members of the show’s cast dancing wildly to go-go music, which would stop periodically for the cast members to deliver comedic exchanges and one-liners. The hour usually closed with the Wall of Jokes, which had the cast popping up from behind several tiny doors cut into a multi-colored wall to unleash a rapid-fire barrage of jokes. After the credits, a single pair of hands would clap until cut finally cut off by a station break.

These setups were vividly to life by a group of talented comedic actors that included future stars like Goldie Hawn and Richard Dawson. The actors would often have one or more trademark characters that would appear in recurring bits on the show. Lily Tomlin’s characters included a snooty telephone operator who said ‘one-ringy-dingy’ while punching in calls and a little girl who blew raspberries at the audience from a giant rocking chair. Henry Gibson—wearing a gaudy medallion and holding a giant flower—would regularly deliver ‘A Poem By Henry Gibson,’ while Alan Sues skewered sportscasters with his satirical portrayal of a bumbling sports reporter.

Arte Johnson played a European soldier who spied on the show’s progress from behind a potted plant while muttering ‘veeeery interesting.’ Johnson also partnered up with Ruth Buzzi for a recurring skit wherein a dirty old man would come on to a frumpy matron sitting on a park bench. The skit also ended with her angrily battering him with her purse after suffering through yet another innuendo. Oddly enough, this bawdy comedy led to a Saturday morning cartoon spin-off, Baggy Pant and the Nitwits. Meanwhile, announcer Gary Owens held the show together with his pronouncements from ‘beautiful downtown Burbank.’

This gifted crew also spouted a series of catchphrases that quickly became a vital part of the American lingo. Judy Carne became famous around the world for her frequent declaration of ‘Sock it to me!,’ which would often lead to a bucket of water being hurled at her. Pigmeat Markham also staked his claim to catchphrase fame with ‘Here comes the judge!’ Other phrases were repeated by various performers, including gems like ‘Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,’ ‘Ring my chimes’ and the deathless ‘You bet your sweet bippy!’

The sum total of all this information-overload was staggering, but audiences loved it from the first moment. The show earned high ratings and enjoyed a five-year run that spawned a 1969 filmed called The Maltese Bippy. Laugh-In’s success also attracted an array of guest stars like Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Carson, Bobby Darin, Zsa Zsa Gabor and John Wayne. Instead of dominating the show by appearing in several skits, these celebs would instead make brief ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ cameos (a very pop-art thing to do). The most infamous of these cameos occurred in 1968 when President Richard Nixon solemnly asked ‘Sock it to… me?’

Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In ended its successful run in May of 1973, but this did not end its popularity. The show found a second life in syndication, where its rapid-fire gags remained surprisingly fresh and influenced gag-a-minute films like Tunnelvision and Airplane!. It also spawned a series of specials in 1977 and a short-lived 1979 update that included rising talent like Robin Williams. Today, Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In remains a favorite for viewers young and old. With the ‘Summer of Love’ now a distant memory, some might wonder if Laugh-In still has anything left to sock to anyone. The answer, of course is, ‘You bet your sweet bippy!’

production details
USA | NBC – George Schlatter – Ed Friendly Prod – Romart | 140×50 minutes | Broadcast 22 January 1968 – 14 May 1973

Creators: Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Ed Friendly, George Schlatter
Producers: Paul Keyes, Carolyn Raskin
Executive Producers: George Schlatter& Ed Friendly(1968-71), Paul Keyes(71-73)

cast
Dan Rowan as Host
Dick Martin as Host
Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann
Goldie Hawn as Regular Performer
Jo Anne Worley
Henry Gibson
Arte Johnson
Alan Sues
Gary Owens
Ruth Buzzi
Jeremy Lloyd
Chelsea Brown
Larry Hovis
Patti Deutsch
Robin Williams
Sarah Kennedy
Teresa Graves

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