One of the biggest shifts in television entertainment occured in the sixties, a decade where TV programs felt increasingly out of touch with reality. Yes, Gilligan’s Island was fine escapist entertainment, but a lot of people thought that the dark reality of America was too important to ignore, including The Smothers Brothers and TV producers Ed Friendly and George Schlatter.
In 1968, Friendly and Schlatter created the sketch comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which was hosted by straight man Dan Rowan and “dumb” guy Dick Martin and ran on NBC until 1973.
The show actually originated from a one-time special that aired in 1967. That special was so successful that it came back as a series and replaced The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The title of the show is a play on “Love-in,” a hippie word which in turn was derived from “sit-in,” a type of peaceful protest common in the antiwar, pro-rights sixties.
Laugh-In was zanier than most comedy on American television, inspired mainly by the comedy of Ernie Kovacs, the topical satire of BBC’s That Was the Week That Was, and the madcap Vaudeville duo of Olsen and Johnson, creators of such Broadway revues as the musical Hellzapoppin’.
The rapid-fire gags, sexual innuendo and political jokes were also pretty novel, and speaking of “rapid-fire,” Arthur Schneider’s pioneering and Emmy-winning editing style changed the language of TV with its use of the “jump-cut” – a jump from one camera shot to another without the use of fading.
The first season featured announcer Gary Owens (later a star of animation who voiced Roger Ramjet and Space Ghost), and cast members Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Judy Carne, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley, and Goldie Hawn as a loveable ditz who became an audience favorite.
Other cast members would come and go, including Alan Sues, Dave Madden, Chelsea Brown, Jeremy Lloyd and Lily Tomlin.
Regular guests included Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Zsa Zsa Gabor, John Wayne, Flip Wilson and Henny Youngman.
Writers included Digby Wolfe (That Was the Week That Was), Allan Manings (One Day at a Time), Jack Mendelsohn (Yellow Submarine, The Carol Burnett Show), Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live), Larry Siegel (Mad Magazine, The Carol Burnett Show), Don Reo (Blossom, My Wife and Kids), and Bill Richmond (The Nutty Professor, The Carol Burnett Show).
Common sketches included:
- “Sock It to Me”
Whenever someone said the phrase “sock it to me” (mostly Judy Carne), they got doused or abused in a slapstick fashion, sometimes after being tricked into saying it. Richard Nixon was the most famous person to utter this phrase on the show, and his appearance on the show is said to have helped him get elected.
- “The Party”
Cast members and guests dance to a few bars and when the orchestra pauses, they give hilarious one-liners.
- “The Joke Wall”
Cast members and guests pop out of windows on a psychedelically designed wall near the end of the show and give more hilarious one-liners.
- “Mod, Mod World”
Brief sketches surrounded by images of female cast members go-go dancing in bikinis, bodies covered with amusing wordplay and phrases.
- “Laugh-In Looks at the News”
A network newscast parody introduced by a production number performed by the female cast members that felt more like a Broadway show than a newscast. This segment was inspired by BBC news satire That Was the Week That Was and was in turn the inspiration for Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment.
Fun Fact: The part of this segment that humorously reported the news from the future correctly predicted two significant occasions in the eighties: the presidential election of Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989.
Laugh-In won Emmys for writing, directing, editing and Outstanding Musical or Variety Program and would win awards all throughout its run.
Four years after it ended, it was briefly revived, although the best part about the 1977 revival was an at-the-time unknown Robin Williams. Otherwise a revival was not necessary.
Another thing about this series that has kept it in the cultural zeitgeist was how quotable it was. Aside from “Sock it to me,” it introduced “Verrry interesting,” “You bet your sweet bippy,” and “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls” (not that anyone says these things anymore).
One of the phrases, “Here come de judge,” actually originated from comedian Pigmeat Markham, who upon learning of Laugh-In appropriating the phrase asked producer George Schlatter to let him play the judge himself. After Markham left the series after the first season, Sammy Davis Jr. revived the phrase in a rap that ended with “Here come de judge, here come de judge…” as he danced off wearing, of course, a judge costume.
The most obvious shows to to be influenced by Laugh-In include Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show, SCTV, and You Can’t Do That on Television.