I can hardly believe I just typed “50th birthday” and “Laugh-In” in the same sentence. But it’s true. After airing a pilot episode in September of 1967, NBC placed Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on its regular schedule in January of 1968, replacing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (sorry, Bill Parisho).
To those television viewers who were comfortable with the more genteel, moderately-paced variety shows and sitcoms at the time, Laugh-In shocked them with an onslaught of one-liners, blackout gags, songs, sketches, and a lot more, all coming at breakneck speed and psychedelic colors. The cast of versatile, genuinely funny cast members during that first year included Artie Johnson, Joanne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson, and Alan Sues–with plenty of celebrity cameo appearances thrown in for good measure.
And, of course, hosting the madness in their distinguished tuxedoes were Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, both 46 at the time, and who had already been performing as a comedy team for the previous decade.
Laugh-In was the result of the duo’s collaboration with producer George Schlatter, who found himself on the same creative wavelength as Rowan & Martin, and who oversaw the writing, editing, and overall tone of the show. As explosive as the show was in 1968, with its breakneck pacing and topical humor about politics, the Vietnam War, pollution, and Women’s Lib, it did have its predecessors. Earlier satirical comedy programs, such as the 1964 American version of the British hit That Was The Week That Was, and The Smothers Brothers Hour, which debuted in 1967, laid the conceptual foundation for the outspoken and often risque nature of the show. This in turn led to many a challenge by NBC censors to a good deal of material. The show quickly acquired the
reputation as pushing the envelope of acceptable, prime-time network comedy, in part because just about everything that had come before it had been so very bland and inoffensive.
In 1968, Time magazine called it “the smartest, freshest show on television…it has an artful spontaneity, a kind of controlled insanity, emerging from a cascade of crazy cartoon ideas.” Actually, the show was aimed most directly at teenage audiences, who promptly lapped it up, yet who could still watch it and enjoy it with their adult parents. The jokes were often in the style of the vaudeville era (or earlier), the sight gags ranged from a cast
member–usually Judy Carne–or guest getting splashed with a bucket of water, to quite clever gags, dance numbers, and news reports presenting “news of the future, twenty years from now…”Bikini-clad girls, covered in graffiti consisting of puns and one-liners, shimmied against psychedelic backgrounds. It was all presented in good, silly fun. In addition
to a first-rate cast of comedians, the show continued to attract an impressive range of A-list celebrity guests, who didn’t always completely grasp what was going on during the energetic, even chaotic tapings. I won’t even go into the countless characters and their catchphrases that emerged from the program, and that quickly found their way into daily conversation.
As a kid in elementary school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I lived for Monday nights and Laugh-In. So did my friends. We spent long hours reciting jokes and re-enacting gags we had instantly memorized while taking in each episode. One of my friends and I even attempted to create our own Laugh-In episode on my ever-present cassette tape recorder. When our own 6th grade standard of material ran out, we turned to a few of the most recent Mad magazine issues, and read them into the microphone within the Laugh-In format (believe it or not, I actually still have those very tapes today).
Throughout its five-season history, the show’s cast went through a number of changes, with only Rowan, Martin, Ruth Buzzi, and announcer Gary Owens appearing in every episode. The last episode aired in May of 1973, by which time the flower-power/hippie era that pervaded much of popular culture at the show’s birth had faded, with Watergate becoming the defining issue of the early ’70s. But thanks to nightly syndication on the Decades network, we can enjoy seeing some cast members before they moved on to still bigger accomplishments in their careers. Who would have
thought that the young, giggling Goldie Hawn would one day become an Academy Award winner, or that Lily Tomlin would win several Emmys, and a Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show?
For all of its goofy silliness and hit-or-miss approach to gags, Laugh-In remains a classic, fifty years after taking the nation by storm. Times have definitely changed, and some examples of the show’s comedy wear better than others when we watch it today; it was a program of its time, of course, but the sheer cleverness and energy that permeates each episode is undeniable, and it can still give us a strong sense of what was going on in our culture, and our world, during a unique era in our history.
So, Happy Birthday, Laugh-In! Thanks for the laughs, and the memories!
Until next week…