This article ran right around the time the last of 140 episodes of Laugh-In (also known as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) aired in 1973, while the collection of photos below the story are from throughout the influential series’ hugely successful run.
And remember: This show was prerecorded earlier, because it didn’t make much sense to prerecord it later.
Laugh-In is fading, but it leaves indelible TV impression
by Jerry Buck
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” was going off the air at midseason, and NBC decided to take a chance with a new comedy show.
That new show, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” landed in January 1968 with the impact of a bucket of water in the face.
It changed the language: Sock it to me. Here come de judge. You bet your sweep bip-py. Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls.
“Laugh In” changed viewing habits. It put Beautiful Downtown Burbank on the map. Its influence was felt in advertising, movies and the stage. Verrry interesting.
Most of all, it changed television. “Laugh-In” is fading and soon will be gone, but it left the tube permanently bent in its own wacky, irreverent, free-wheeling image.
How it altered the face of TV
“It revolutionized television,” said Paul Keyes, originally head writer and later producer. “It loosened up what you could do and what you couldn’t do. I think before us except for the midnight shows, television was fairly bland.
George Schlatter, former executive producer, said “Without ‘Laugh-In,’ you’d never have had ‘All in the Family’ or ‘Sanford and Son’ or any of the others. It brought back satire. “‘Laugh-In’ was the first pure television show. Everything else was an abbreviation of something else. From radio or vaudeville or the stage.”
Dick Martin said, “‘Laugh-In’ made a major contribution, but it wasn’t on purpose. It was accidental. We’re proud of it. It did change television, and we take credit only that we didn’t start out to. All we did was make it mandatory for the audience to keep its eyes glued to the set.”
“Laugh-In” got people talking about television again. Its rapid-fire gags, many of them dreadful, were repeated by millions every Tuesday morning.
It was the first television show to truly take advantage of the electronic medium and stretch its technical capabilities to the maximum. For every hour on the air as many as 23 hours were taped and painstakingly edited and spliced together. Technical equipment built to handle the editing job is now in common use throughout the industry.
“Laugh-In” took two nightclub comics who had never really made it big, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, and turned them into overnight sensations.
It took a group of complete unknowns and made them household words: Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley, Arte Johnson, Gary Owens, Henry Gibson, Ruth Buzzi, Alan Sues, Chelsea Brown.
People who seldom did television clamored to be on the show to utter inane lines. Among them: Richard M Nixon, Republican candidate for president in 1968. Candidate Nixon asked “Sock it to me.” An invitation to his Democratic opponent, Hubert H Humphrey, was declined.
Very low expectations
When “Laugh-In” premiered in January 1968, its 8-9 pm time slot lapped from the second half of “Gunsmoke” to the the Lucille Ball Show. Both “Gunsmoke” and “Lucy” were in top five of the Nielsen ratings.
NBC had so little hope for the show that it had already signed a replacement.
“We had every pressure to make it a normal variety show,” said Schlatter. “The network kept asking, ‘Who are the guest stars? What are the songs?’ I finally said, ‘Let me be right or let me be wrong, but let me be different. They left us alone after that.”
Fourteen weeks after its premiere, “Laugh-In” hit the top of the ratings.
And the inevitable downfall
It is difficult to say exactly what caused the show to finally slip.
Inevitably, the form became predictable. The rapid barrage of old gags, new gags, innuendos and inanities no longer titillated. Instead of laughs they provoked yawns.
“The trouble was ‘Laugh-In’ went a year too long,” said Martin. “We told NBC it was over, but they said it was sold out. ‘Laugh-In’ was a form, and when the form becomes predictable, it becomes less interesting.”
And as yesterday’s avant garde is today’s rear guard, so “Laugh-In” found itself surpassed by the shows it had made possible. “All in the Family” and others become more daring, more provocative, more outrageous, more thought provoking — and certainly funnier — than “Laugh-In.”
It cannot be calculated how much internal bickering contributed to the downfall of “Laugh-In.” “Disagreement over whaf ‘Laugh-In’ was is probably what brought about my departure,” said Schlatter. “In the original deal, I had undisputed control and in the first four years I did the show the way I wanted and I was proud of it.
“At the point I could no longer control the shew, I left.” Keyes quit the show earlier walking out in October 1969 calling the show “slanted, vulgar and dirty.” He denied at the time that it had anything to do with his friendship with President Nixon. He said he had not been under White House pressure to stop the sniping at Nixon because he did not think there had been any.
Eighteen months later, Schlatter was out and Keyes was back. “When I came back the writers asked. ‘Does this mean the Nixon jokes are out?'” Keyes said. “I said, ‘Give me your political jokes. Don’t give me your political views.'”
Much of the argument centered on who had created “Laugh-In.” Schlatter claims credit, and said his claim is on file with the Writers Guild of America. He said the title and the show will revert to him once it goes off the air this summer.
“Rowan and Martin were not in it from the beginning,” said Schlatter, a round-faced, bearded man. “The original deal was for the form. Rowan and Martin may have contributed to the success of the show more than we know. They were little-known. They added a touch of sanity. They were the only foreign element tn ‘Laugh-In.’ We never really agreed on it. They didn’t understand the form.”
Martin said, “In the beginning, we were very lavish with the credits. No longer will we be Mr Nice Guy. No longer will we mention collaboration. Where did ‘Laugh-In’ come from? Dan and I brought it to television.” ♦
Lily Tomlin in costume as switchboard operator Ernestine
Goldie Hawn with Dan Rowan
Tiny Tim performs a sketch with Dan Rowan on Rowan & Martin’s ‘Laugh-In’ in January 1969
Comedian Dick Martin (1922-2008) poses for a candid portrait on the set of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in October, 1968 in beautiful downtown Burbank, California
Comedian Dick Martin rehearses a sketch on the set of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in October, 1968
Comedienne Phyllis Diller performs on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in October 1968
Tiny Tim performs a sketch on Rowan & Martin’s ‘Laugh-In’ in October 1968 in Los Angeles California.
Goldie Hawn wears body paint and a bikini in a promotional portrait for the television series, ‘Laugh-In’
Henry Gibson performs on the NBC television comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In circa 1969
Actor Henry Gibson performs on the NBC television comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In circa 1969