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

What’s So Funny?

Why was this broad and bizarre burlesque considered funny? There are two reasons. First, it’s loaded with cultural history. The judge was a character at the end of the first season played by Roddy Maude-Roxby (who, along with Anita Sharp-Bolster, has one of my favorite names in the history of English actors). Davis introduced the skits during his first guest spot on the ninth episode, and soon everyone took it up, including young comedian Flip Wilson, who would become the first African-American to host a hit variety show.

While the series soon called attention to the religious overtones of the phrase, white viewers are unlikely to have known that it originated with another black stand-up comic, Pigmeat Markham, who played a judge in skits on the “Chitlin’ Circuit”. Noticing the appropriation, he called the show and landed a gig as the judge in Season Two skits that serve as valuable records of his routines. By this time, everyone in the country was chanting “Here comes the judge” (per Davis) or “Here come da judge” (per Wilson, often in his “Geraldine” voice). Notice that Davis insisted on correct grammar.

Markham took advantage of his breakthrough to release “Here Comes the Judge” as a comedy single on Chess Records in 1968, and it’s widely considered a progenitor of rap. See how much there is to learn?

Now we arrive at the second — and even more underground reason — for the judge humor. The image of a black judge was a rarity on TV, as in American culture, although not completely unknown. You might have glimpsed one now and then on The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show (1951-53), whose reruns were still being aired until 1966, or you might have noticed a recurring black judge on a handful of episodes of Perry Mason (1957-66).

Our point is that even with the sugar-coating of a hip, slangy, funny judge, the image was a signal to mainstream America that the times were a-changing, ready or not, and that there was really such a thing as Black Power –another phrase referenced by Davis in a punchline. I believe that’s the subtextual vibe, and it goes beyond Markham’s parody-critique of the judicial system.

Davis’ first episode is also when Rowan and Martin acknowledge another influence: Ernie Kovacs, the inspiration behind many of the sight gags. It’s all part of the show’s lexicon of comedy history, which includes exhuming shamelessly grey-bearded vaudeville gags. Judge: “Have you ever been up before me?” Defendant: “I don’t know, your honor. What time do you get up?” Boom!

Watching the show today reveals an era when a giddy celebration of multiculturalism is sometimes expressed in political incorrectness by current standards. Sometimes they’re aware of it. Sometimes it’s meant as “we’re hip” provocation. Producers were giddy with loosening broadcast standards and did their best to loosen them further. A few of the ethnic masquerades go a long way, and we wish they had.

The most illuminating samples are a festival of self-consciously mixed signals, such as three white guys wearing Native American get-up. One says “Me Arapaho,” the next says “Me Comanche,” and the third says, “Me actor. Who do I have to scalp to get out of this?” One could deconstruct this for days, or at least minutes.

In the extras, Arte Johnson, who specialized in ethnic humor and dialect, gives an interview discussing its place in the era’s comedy and admits that a few people at the time were bothered by it. His funniest character today is probably the musical Russian defector Rosmenko, who does a great routine with his twin brother, played by Sammy Davis Jr.!

During some of his other ethnic characters, you may prefer to visit the fridge. He describes the musical basis of such impressions and gives credit to growing up in Chicago. He also states that his doddering dirty old man, Tyrone, forever making passes at Buzzi’s Gladys and getting battered with her purse, was partly inspired by a retired Chicago cop whom he felt was spending “too much time at the playgrounds”.

I wish to call attention to two regulars who used this show as a platform to stardom. The first is Goldie Hawn, who parlayed the stumbling, bumbling, fumbling, I-can’t-remember-my-lines beautiful dumb blonde routine into by far the most successful big-screen career of anyone on the show. By the time the public noticed that she was producing her own hit films, or that her relationship with squeaky-clean Disney kid Kurt Russell had lasted decades, the laugh was on us.

Second place goes to the magnificent Lily Tomlin, whose arrival in the third season challenged the writers’ boys club of sexist jokes, which had seemed the only thing they knew what to do with the women. The arrival of “women’s lib” as a topical thing can make today’s viewer wince, but Tomlin has one of the best gags. On a tirade about being fed up with housework, she declares that no woman should have to clean and scrub all day. “What do you want?” asks hubby Rowan, and she replies, “I want a maid.” Today we call that intersectional.

For the record, the show’s women included Judy Carne, who threw herself into all manner of slapstick (especially funny in Robot Theatre skits); Ruth Buzzi, whose Gladys morphed from man-hungry drip to uptight drip; Jo Ann Worley, emitter of piercing hoots; Eileen Brennan, whose gravel voice sang with surprising sweetness; Chelsea Brown, an African-American who moved on to a TV career in Australia; Teresa Graves, whose Get Christie Love! (1974-75) was the first police drama starring a black woman; and tap-dancer Barbara Sharma.

Tomlin’s array of self-created characters included switchboard operator Ernestine (“One ringy-dingy. We don’t care, we’re the phone company.”) and Edith Ann, a little girl like Raggedy Ann who philosophizes in an oversize rocking chair and completes her observations with “And that’s the truth” and a big razzberry. If Hawn played the dumb-ass, Tomlin played the wise-ass. She discusses the origin of these characters in a couple of bonus interviews.

Tomlin’s many accomplishments include an Oscar nod for Robert Altman‘s Nashville (1975), a Tony for her one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe in collaboration with partner Jane Wagner (now a 50-year relationship), the hit movies 9 to 5 (Colin Higgins, 1980) and All of Me (Carl Reiner, 1984), and, since 2015, the Netflix series, Grace and Frankie. Not bad for someone who’s been written off more than once when this or that project didn’t pan out.

Regulars we haven’t mentioned include, among others, Dennis Allen, Johnny Brown, Richard Dawson, Patty Deutsch, Stu Gilliam, Larry Hovis, Jeremy Lloyd, Dave Madden, Gary Owens, Jud Strunk, and big Alan Sues, who camped enough for a dozen boy scouts.

Crucial to the show’s vibe was the air of pretty young off-the-cuff frivolity tapping the zeitgeist of the “youth market” while loading the show with guest icons of square culture, e.g. Jack Benny, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra etc. We give our seal of approval to these irreverent youngsters, the guests imply, in return for our own hip creds. As with the mix of topical references and antiquarian gags, this shrewd paradox is key to the show’s success.

Guests comprise such a stunning who’s who, from Orson Welles to Rock Hudson to Tiny Tim to, notoriously, Richard Nixon, that listing them all would cause star fatigue. Anyway, discovering them is part of the surprise.

Even the most indulgent viewer wouldn’t say that most of the jokes work, and they often didn’t at the time. The show’s format includes self-criticism, mainly in comments from guests (Milton Berle: “This is on the air, and I don’t have a series?”) or regulars (Worley: “Dumb!”). Regular analysis comes from Johnson’s German, such as “Ver-r-r-y interesting, but obvious” or “Ver-r-r-y interesting, but stupid.”

A favorite. Dan Rowan: “Have you seen any of the new shows this week on TV?” Eve Arden: “No, this is the weakest one I’ve seen.”

On a technical level, the DVDs come with a warning that quality of the original materials is variable, and they don’t mean the gags. Some episodes have visual artifacts at the edges, and a few have slightly fuzzy sound. Nothing’s a serious distraction, except possibly the laugh track; well, somebody had to laugh, and it often wasn’t the studio audience. (Johnson claims they didn’t use canned laughter but I can hear it.) The colors pop as they should for such a vibrant show. Credit goes to initial director Gordon Wiles for cutting together the look, pace and silly tone under the leadership of creator-producer George Schlatter.

The 37 discs promise bonus features that your intrepid reviewer hasn’t always gotten to. Full disclosure: So far I’ve only watched the first season and first discs of each later season to chart the evolution. This schedule seems reasonable, for I can’t recommend mega-doses. Moderation is key. It lasts longer and still reveals a broadly amusing and culturally educational brew.