“And now, folks, it’s sock-it-to-you time.”
Few television shows have had as much influence on the pop culture as did Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The brainchild of George Schlatter the series has left behind a rich legacy. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Laugh-In, you’ve heard the catch-phrases, or you’ve watched another show that was directly influenced by it. Lorne Michaels, who created the iconic Saturday Night Live, began as a writer on Laugh-In, and once you’ve seen Laugh-In, you are going to instantly recognize many of the same ideas. Shows like Hee Haw and the British Benny Hill have admitted to taking material directly from Laugh-In. Best of all, it was a family show that didn’t need to be on at midnight so the kids wouldn’t be around. Laugh-In thrived for six seasons in prime time, and I can still remember evenings where the entire family gathered to watch. It was something none of us had seen before but we all have seen since. But as the old song goes: “Ain’t nothing like the real thing”. And Time-Life put it all together in one massive box set. All 140 episodes on a massive 38-disc set. And don’t forget that holiday shopping begins soon. Don’t worry; I suspect we’ll find a way to remind you.
The series started pretty much by accident. The network owed George Schlatter a favor, and the payout was that they would let him produce anything he wanted and they were obligated to put it on the air. The result was the first of two specials of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The show was intended pretty much as a sacrificial lamb opposite Gunsmoke and Here’s Lucy. The show was a quirky kind of thing that the network expected would die a quick death and never be heard from again. Unlike most comedy shows, this one used very short segments that came at you with a rapid-fire style. There’s almost no time to laugh. You get one joke, and by the time you’re done laughing, you missed the next four of them. It was also one of the first shows to employ a kind of “not ready for prime time” players. The show sported a regular cast of players that were pretty much unknown at the time. Of course we all know Artie Johnson, Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley, and Flip Wilson today. Skits were always short. There was no guest host. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin would pretty much host the show. They were often referred to as “The Big Kids” by the fellow cast members. Rowan & Martin were pretty much a nightclub act with a unique style that combined the wordplay of Abbott & Costello with the smart/dumb guy routine of The Smothers Brothers at the time. Guest stars did appear but usually just appeared in skits or quick line segments. One appearance on the show could be stretched out to several episodes because of the quick nature of the material. They were neighbors with The Johnny Carson Show and often got his guests to come in a shoot a few shorts that could be sprinkled into the show. In that way the show attracted huge names, because it was a “hip” show, and it required very little effort or time on their part to participate.
Today there’s a ton of talk about Russians influencing our elections. But in 1968 it was a television comedy series that was accused of influencing the election. One of the most popular segments of the early years of Laugh-In was having big-time celebrities appear and utter the famous phrase “Sock it to me”. Over the years the show had names like John Wayne, Vincent Price, Leonard Nimoy, and Richard Burton utter the line. But in 1968 Richard Nixon was looking for a way to show that he wasn’t quite so uptight as his reputation suggested. So he agreed, and it is now one of the most iconic moments in television history. In fairness, the show reached out to his opponent, Humphrey, who declined the invitation. Schlatter remarks that his Hollywood friends have blamed him for Nixon’s win ever since. I had a chance to talk to Schlatter, and we posted it as a podcast. You might want to check that out if you haven’t. Just bang it Here.
The series had many lines that made it into the popular lexicon. “Sock it to me” was just one. Sammy Davis Jr. appeared early in the show dressed in a white wig and judge’s robes. He would introduce a courtroom segment with the lines “Here come the judge” repeated several times. The executives on the show knew they had a hit when the Supreme Court opened session days later and someone in the gallery shouted the line. Another popular phrase was born. The network censors were reportedly confused when the show started using the phrase “You bet your sweet bippy”. Of course, we all knew what a bippy was. “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls” was another that often made the network a little nervous. Of course, there was Artie Johnson’s WWII German soldier Wolfgang’s “Very interesting”. Likely you’ve heard some or all of these, and now you know where they came from.
The show also had somewhat of a formula of regular routines that appeared throughout the years. It always started with a bit from Rowan & Martin giving some opening remarks. That was usually followed by The Cocktail Party. Here the cast members would be in some character or another, and they’d be in a mod living room where they’d be dancing. It was like a game of musical chairs. The music would suddenly stop; the characters would freeze in place while a couple of them gave us a zinger. The dancing would resume, and this would go on for several minutes. Often we’d go to The Mod Mod World, where a particular subject would be lampooned by several sketches. Subjects might include The Generation Gap or the world of advertisements. The highlight of this segment was a go-go girl dressed in a bikini with related words or symbols painted on her body. It was often Goldie Hawn but also included other female members of the cast. George told me that painting Goldie Hawn’s body was the most sought-after job at NBC, and I believe him. The Flying Fickle Finger Of Fate Award was a chance for Rowan & Martin to bring attention to some dumb thing someone in the news might have said or done. It was often directed at politicians or corporate CEO’s. It was a golden statue of a hand holding up a finger, I suspect not the one originally intended. New Talent was usually a joke and not some springboard for an unknown performer, with one notable exception. It would launch the career of the ukulele-playing Tiny Tim, who would go on to do several appearances on the show. Potpourri was intended as an open-forum segment that was my least favorite segment on the show. Quickies was another one of those double-meaning words that delivered short jokes. Of course, the entire show was really quickies. There was Laugh-In Looks At The News. This was the only segment that appeared all the way until the show’s end. It had a catchy theme song. In the early years it began with Martin doing a Carson imitation as he delivered some humorous headline. It came complete with Carson music and the golf swing. Then Rowan would deliver the news of the future, usually 20 years later. It correctly predicted Ronald Reagan’s presidency and Shirley Temple’s ambassadorship. There would be a short sports segment with “Big Al” Alan Sues ringing his “featurette” bell. The segment usually wrapped up with a look at the news of the past with an interview with someone like Christopher Columbus and then a short reprise of the theme song. In later years it was reduced to Rowan & Martin sitting at a desk to deliver a more conventionally looking report, much as SNL would do 15 years later. Finally, there was The Joke Wall. This is easily the most recognizable part of the series over the years. The cast would be behind doors on a massive wall. They would open their door and engage another cast member who would pop open their door to share a joke. The bloopers usually remained here, and you can often see them mess up and laugh. This is how the show ended.
In addition to regular segments, there were characters created by the cast that would recur over the years. Artie Johnson and Ruth Buzzi had a routine going as Tyrone Horneigh, an elder man who would try to pick up Ruth Buzzi’s famous Gladys Ormphby character. The result was getting pummeled by her purse. Buzzi would continue that character with the brown sweater and hairnet. It would become her signature look for many years after Laugh-In. Henry Gibson would often deliver a short, odd poem about something like flowers or butterflies. Gibson was hands down my favorite cast member on the show. He didn’t go on to the kind of fame others did, but he was consistently the most amusing over the years. Judy Carnes was the Sock It To Me Girl who would be maneuvered into saying the phrase and then be drenched by water. Alan Sues was often “Uncle Al The Children’s Pal”. He was the drunk host of a kiddies’ show who always messed up whatever he was doing and closed the show early while arguing with unseen kids in the audience. His line was usually “Uncle Al had too much medicine last night”. Lily Tomlin made her telephone operator Ernestine popular with her “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” and managing to give us the finger and slip it by the censors. She would lick her middle finger hold it out just a second and then use it to dial her victim for the sketch. Gary Owens was one of the few who lasted all six years. He was the show’s announcer. He’d have one hand over his ear and give his best MC voice to introduce the show and offer observations during the broadcast. He would tell us that they were being broadcast from beautiful downtown Burbank. Burbank took a lot of hits on the show.
It would be impossible to list all of the guest stars here, but it was one of the most eclectic groups to have been on any single television show. One of the oddest choices involved musical guests. They never actually performed. The first season saw a couple of music videos, but the show had guests like Ringo Starr, Davey Jones, Liberace, Nancy Sinatra, Don Ho, Henry Mancini, Sonny & Cher, Diana Ross, Bobby Darin, and Perry Como without singing. There were a great number of big names that included: Don Rickles, John Wayne, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Henny Youngman, Mel Brooks, Kirk Douglas, Peter Falk, Jack Lemmon, Bob Newhart, Rock Hudson, the recently deceased Hugh Hefner, Rod Serling, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Michael Caine, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Don Adams, Sally Field, and a ton more.
For the first few years the cast was pretty stable. The constant regulars were Ruth Buzzi, Artie Johnson, Judy Carne, Chelsea Brown, Goldie Hawn, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, and Jo Anne Worley. Goldie Hawn soon won her Academy Award and left the show after nearly three years. By the beginning of the fourth season there were a lot of changes. That’s when Lily Tomlin entered, but it would be the last we’d see Artie Johnson and Henry Gibson. The show also was changing its style a little bit by then. There had been a lot of pressure on the executives from both network and government officials to tone down the jabs. That led to writers and others eventually leaving. Give them credit for the fact that they continued to fire those jabs. The political leaning was decidedly liberal, but they weren’t afraid to poke fun at their own side. William F. Buckley was courted many times but refused. He was very often the subject of their jabs. He finally agreed in a good-natured exchange that George said was finally sealed when he offered to fly the guest in on a plane with two right wings. But the show was indeed changing. There was a flirtation with dropping The Joke Wall, but it returned after a few episodes. The set got a bit glitzier, and I think the comedy suffered from the show’s success. The last couple of seasons were not nearly as inspiring as the first three or four.
Today this might appear dated television, and it’s exactly that. But this series is somewhat historical in nature. The show began in the 1960’s at the start of the flower power movements and Vietnam protests. The name itself is taken from terms like sit-in. Much of the show’s look and material reflect those times. It’s rather amazing how much of a mirror this show is to the time it was broadcast. Because it lasted six years, we also start to see the transition from the 1960’s to the 1970’s both in design and material. It’s pretty cool to watch it happen over the six seasons of the series. Because it was such a socially relevant show, this is truly a window into the past. George has been approached to bring it back but doubts he would be allowed the freedom he had then. He’s absolutely right. Without that freedom it just wouldn’t be Laugh-In. In 1977 there was a brief attempt to bring it back, but you just can’t create something for the first time again. For now, you have 140 episodes to enjoy the people, places, and themes of the world as it was 50 years ago. I find that “very interesting”.