Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in | publicity photo | Wikipedia
John Wayne and Tiny Tim (1971) | Rowan & Martin's Laugh-in | publicity photo | Wikipedia (public domain)

‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’ Still Socks It to Us

Watch Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in and you will receive a sound education in America’s politics and pop culture of the late ’60s / early ’70s.

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In: The Complete Series
2 February 2021

And then there was Laugh-In. Or, to give its proper name, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-73), a TV series and pop-culture phenomenon whose second and third seasons ranked #1 in the ratings. This whirlwind of the sophisticated and corny was certifiably hip, hot and happening, “what it is” and “where it’s at”. Seemingly everyone in America watched it and quoted it, and everyone in celebrity-land vied to get on it. You kind of had to be there.

The gravy train ended when the public tired sufficiently to drop the show from the Top 30 during its sixth season of 1972-73, just as the Watergate scandal was ramping up and the Vietnam War was still in mid-mire. Maybe it was harder to laugh, or more likely the novelty wore off.

Time-Life’s new box set completes the overdue project of issuing all six seasons on disc. So far, only the first three seasons had appeared, and that was enough to demonstrate the proposition that a show created as a textbook example of comedy that should become wretchedly “dated” and “of its time” — that long-term kiss of death known as topical humor — can appeal to new audiences, and not only as a museum piece.

There are at least two reasons for this. A minor reason is that, if you really burn to know who Hubert Humphrey was, you now have Google and Wikipedia.

Why does the first episode have an old man (Leo G. Carroll) declaring into his pen that he’s discovered THRUSH headquarters? Well, everyone at the time knew that this new show was a mid-season replacement for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68), the spy series just canceled after four seasons, on which Carroll played the boss, Mr. Waverly. The joke unwittingly serves as a memento mori, a perfect emblem of how television shows rode waves of cultural popularity that crested, wiped out, and washed away.

I believe not many of today’s viewers will look things up, since the gags and one-liners fly so quickly that they’ll move on to the next before having time to register, “I didn’t get that.” However, those who use the pause button will receive as sound an education in politics and pop culture of the late ’60s and early ’70s as any other source will provide. That’s one value of the “dated”.

For example, consider the barrage of 1968 references to Charles De Gaulle, which begin well before the events in Paris that May. In one of the weekly cocktail party sketches, where the music and dancing freeze every two seconds so someone can utter a quip, Dan Rowan asks Roddy Maude-Roxby what the British think of De Gaulle. He answers, “You have to give him credit. If he hadn’t pulled out of Vietnam, you Americans wouldn’t have it now.”

That’s still mordant and points to the more important reason why much of the show remains watchable. Satirical jokes and observations on politics, corruption, racism, war, corporate greed, and the absurdity of life haven’t dated and require no explanation, unfortunately.

In theory, one might have a tedious commentary track that explains everything. Perhaps a bonus essay on a few cultural talking points would have been helpful, but I wonder how many viewers would bother doing homework on a bunch of gags. It’s okay that we’re tossed into the swimming pool. At least it’s the shallow end.

So some jokes will be lost, like catch-phrases in commercials about bad breath (“Tonight I’m going to tell her”) or game shows (“I’ve got a secret”). Others will be quite clear, like numerous references to “the pill” and Planned Parenthood, or Peter Lawford stating, with a wink, “You don’t have to be happy to be gay.”

On the latter subject, a surprising number of jokes use “Laurence Harvey” as a punchline for implied less-than-strict-heterosexuality, which is interesting information. My film-buff heart is astounded that Rowan talks about going to see Radley Metzger‘s pioneering lesbian erotic drama, Therese and Isabelle (1968). He says, “Loved her. Hated her.”

Other jokes will be vaguely clear. Cut to Flip Wilson lighting a cigarette with a lighter that ignites a huge flame. He remarks that it’s a gift from a fan in Detroit. Cut to the next joke. Either the modern viewer grasps the direct reference to the 1967 Detroit riots or not. If not, I believe we still “get it”.

Another reason for the show’s watchability is style. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in caught everybody’s eye, but not because the jokes, skits, puns, and spoofs were especially funny, because really most of them weren’t. What mattered was the package: bright colors, rapid pace, jump cuts, subliminal montages, and visual clutter such as ticker-tape quips running across the screen while something else is going on.

The style is so dense with catch-phrases and running gags that half the running time could be occupied with shots of helmeted Arte Johnson uttering German-accented variants of “Ver-r-r-y interesting”, or people saying “Sock it to me” or getting soaked with water or dropping through trapdoors, or zoom-ins to bikini’d women dancing with body-painted slogans on parts of their anatomy (“Goliath was stoned”), and the viewers would simply laugh. They’d been trained like Pavlov’s dog.

Lots of the show’s humor was of the near-dirty variety that dared the censor and played with the idea that there are certain things you couldn’t say on TV. The show alluded to the words and the things they referred to, as with the Fickle Finger of Fate bits. As they liked to say, you can look that up in your Funk & Wagnall’s.

A classic example of catch-phrases and near-naughtiness is the closing spiel. Hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, who’d honed their comedy act in nightclubs, based their patter on playing, respectively, the straight man and the idiot. This was a venerable trope in comedy duos, such as George Burns and Gracie Allen. That mighty team had routinely ended their TV series with a final bit of wacky dialogue after which George said, “Say good night, Gracie,” and Gracie would demurely say “Good night.”

Rowan and Martin added a knuckle-headed spin to the formula, in addition to Martin’s being horny and alcoholic. The exasperated Rowan would advise, “Say good night, Dick,” and Martin would promptly answer, “Good night, Dick.” It sounds dumb, but you also knew that he was baiting his partner. And that his partner loved it.

Such were the layers of the gag. And there was more. This exchange ritualistically triggered a protracted sign-off in which regulars and guests would repeat “Good night, Dick” or “Who’s Dick?” (think about it), leading to the opening and closing of windows on a colorfully designed Joke Wall. Flubs or improvisations were kept in.

Again, nobody really cared if the jokes were funny. Nobody remembers the jokes. Repetition and ritual were, in themselves, funny. This insight distills and summarizes so much of TV comedy. Our desire to laugh is half the secret.

As another example, Rowan and Martin were forever spouting the phrase “You bet your bippy.” What did this mean? Nobody could say, but it sounded nearly naughty. Although the show specialized in this juvenile tone, today it carries an air of innocence, like a precocious child. If you look deeply, you can detect its cultural undercurrents under the bippies and hippies, and its wide-eyed sense that laughter and goodwill can change the world for the better.

A famous running (or dancing) gag was provided by Sammy Davis, Jr., one of the gang who appeared so frequently as to be “guest regulars” or “regular guests”. The joke is that Sammy dances across the stage or appears in a close-up, decked out in long black robes and British white roller-curled wig, and sings or asserts “Here comes the judge!”