Rowan And Martin's Laugh-in was the NBC comedy-variety program which became an important training ground for a generation of comic talent. If The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour captured the political earnestness and moral conscience of the 1960s counterculture, Laugh-in snared its flamboyance, its anarchic energy, and its pop aesthetic, combining the black-out comedy of the vaudeville tradition with a 1960s-style "happening."
In an age of "sit-ins," "love-ins" and "teach-ins," NBC was proposing a "laugh-in" which somehow bridged generational gaps. Originally a one-shot special, Laugh-in was an immediate hit and quickly became the highest-rated series of the late 1960s. In a decade of shouted slogans, bumper stickers, and protest signs, Laugh-in translated its comedy into discrete one-liners hurled helter-skelter at the audience in hopes that some of them would prove funny. Many of them became catch-phrases: "Sock it to me," "Here come de judge," "You bet your sweet bippy," and "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls." In this frenetic and fragmented series, comic lines were run as announcements along the bottom of the screen, printed in lurid colors on the bodies of bikini-clad go-go girls, and shouted over the closing credits. The humor was sometimes topical, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes "right on" and sometimes right of center, but it largely escaped the censorship problems which besieged the Smothers Brothers. Its helter-skelter visual style stretched the capabilities of television and video-tape production, striving for the equivalent of the cutting and optical effects Richard Lester brought to the Beatles movies.
Laugh-in broke down the traditional separation of comedy, musical performance, and dramatic interludes which had marked most earlier variety shows and decentered the celebrity host from his conventional position as mediator of the flow of entertainment. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, successful Las Vegas entertainers, sought to orchestrate the proceedings but were constantly swamped by the flow of sight-gags and eccentric performances which surrounded them. Similarly, guest stars played no privileged role here. For a time, everyone seemed to want to appear on Laugh-in, with guests on one memorable episode including Jack Lemmon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Hugh Hefner, and presidential candidate Richard Nixon. But no guest appeared for more than a few seconds at a time, and none received the kind of screen time grabbed by the program's ensemble of talented young clowns.
The comic regulars--Gary Owens' over-modulated announcer, Ruth Buzzi's perpetually-frustrated spinster, Arte Johnson's lecherous old man, Goldie Hawn's dizzy blonde, Jo Anne Worley's anti-Chicken Joke militant, Henry Gibson's soft-spokenly banal poet, Lily Tomlin's snorting telephone operator, Pigmeat Markham's all-powerful Judge, and countless others--dominated the program. Many of these comics moved almost overnight from total unknowns to household names and many became important stars for the subsequent decades. Not until Saturday Night Live would another television variety show ensemble leave such a firm imprint on the evolution of American comedy. These recurring characters and their associated shtick gave an element of familiarity and predictability to a program which otherwise depended upon its sense of the unexpected.
While Laugh-in lacks the satirical bite of later series such as Saturday Night Live, SCTV or In Living Color or of That Was The Week That Was (to which it was often compared by contemporary critics), Laugh-in brought many minority and female performers to mainstream audiences, helping to broaden the composition of television comedy. Its dependence upon stock comic characters and catch-phrases was clearly an influence on the development of Saturday Night Live, which by comparison, has a much more staid visual style and more predictable structure. Unfortunately, Laugh-in's topicality, even its close fit with 1960s aesthetics, has meant that the program has not fared well in re-runs, being perceived as dated almost from the moment it was aired. However, the on-going success of Laugh-in alums such as Hawn, Tomlin, or even gameshow host Richard Dawson point to its continued influence.
- Henry Jenkins
Dan Rowan Dick Martin Gary Owens Ruth Buzzi Judy Carne (1968-1970) Eileen Brennan (1968) Goldie Hawn (1968-1970) Arte Johnson (1968-1971) Henry Gibson (1968-1971) Roddy-Maude Roxby (1968) Jo Anne Worley (1968-1970) Larry Hovis (1968, 1971-1972) Pigmeat Markham (1968-1969) Charlie Brill (1968-1969) Dick Whittington (1968-1969) Mitzi McCall (1968-1969) Chelsea Brown (1968-1969) Alan Sues (1968-1972) Dave Madden (1968-1969) Teresa Graves (1969-1970) Jeremy Lloyd (1969-1970) Pamela Rodgers (1969-1970) Byron Gilliam (1969-1970) Ann Elder (1970-1972) Lily Tomlin (1970-1973) Johnny Brown (1970-1972) Dennis Allen (1970-1973) Nancy Phillips (1970-1971) Barbara Sharma (1970-1972) Harvey Jason (1970-1971) Richard Dawson (1971-1973) Moosie Drier (1971-1973) Patti Deutsch (1972-1973) Jud Strunk (1972-1973) Brian Bressler (1972-1973) Sarah Kennedy (1972-1973) Donna Jean Young (1972-1973) Tod Bass (1972-1973) Lisa Farringer (1972-1973) Willie Tyler & Lester (1972-l973)
PRODUCERS George Schlatter, Paul W. Keyes, Carolyn Raskin
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 124 Episodes
NBC January l968-May 1973 Monday 8:00-9:00
Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades Of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Rowan, Dan. A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. McDonald, 1967-1974. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Waters, Harry R. "Laugh-In." Newsweek (New York), 8 February 1993. Henry Jenkins.