Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

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Announcer: This show has been prerecorded to give the cast a chance to get away.
German Soldier: Veeeeery eenteresting, but they'll never make it across the border.
[laughs maniacally]

Iconic, anarchic hour-long sketch comedy series broadcast on NBC from 1968 to 1973. Created by George Schlatter, it broke new ground in television comedy with its rapid-fire jokes, outrageous characters and -- for the time -- utterly insane and over-the-top humor. The show's ostensible hosts were the urbane Dan Rowan and the somewhat dim Dick Martin, but this tuxedo-clad pair were frequently outshone by the platoon of seeming lunatics who made up the rest of the cast.

The show is best known today for the future stars whose careers it launched -- Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Tiny Tim, Henry Gibson, Ruth Buzzi, Arte Johnson, Pat Paulson, and Joanne Worley among others -- and the incredible comic moments it managed to pull off (such as then-presidential-candidate Richard M. Nixon asking America to "sock it to him"). But until the birth of Saturday Night Live several years later, Laugh-In was the touchstone of modern American humor. (SNL emulated it, in some ways -- unsurprisingly, because many Laugh-In writers later worked on SNL, including the later show's producer, Lorne Michaels.) It was possibly the single largest source of Running Gags, Catch Phrases and other pop culture contributions during the middle of the 20th century, and developed during its surprisingly brief run an utterly unique and frenetically subversive style that carried them directly into the subconscious of the viewer. Because of its wild and unpredictable yet intelligent style, it was also often very successful at getting surprisingly risque material (for the era) on the air -- usually by setting up apparently-innocent situations where the viewer's mind would fill in the blanks with suitably dirty punchlines and speculations of their own.

Regular features of the show included Rowan and Martin's opening "monologue", Gladys and Tyrone the Dirty Old Man on the park bench, the "cocktail party", the not-quite adventures of the Farkle family, "Laugh-In News" and the end-of-episode "joke wall". In addition to the videotaped studio sketches, there were also a large number of filmed bits, most of them running gags, including most famously Judy Carne and Goldie Hawn go-go dancing, and the raincoated man on his tricycle. Every episode had a celebrity Special Guest who participated -- usually with gleeful good humor -- in the anarchic goings-on. Certain stars -- like Tiny Tim -- were particular favorites and were brought back episode after episode until they were almost members of the main cast themselves. Video clips of previous guest stars would also frequently show up on later shows as punchlines, setups or simple Reaction Shots.

Part of the show's charm was due to Schlatter's tendency not to do retakes, leaving bungles, bloopers and cast crack-ups in place for broadcast. (In fact, he often deliberately provoked Goldie Hawn into fits of giggles on-camera just so he could film and broadcast her laughing.) This gave the impression of a show that was often completely out of control and on which almost anything could happen. The often psychedelic set design just added to it, although Laugh-In never did any kind of overt hard drug humor (although most episodes had a coy marijuana one-liner or two).

George Schlatter attempted to recreate the success of Laugh-In for ABC by cloning it into a show called Turn-on, but the copycat series failed so miserably that it was cancelled during its first episode. Before the 1970s were over, Schlatter would try once again with a proper revival of Laugh-in. It too, failed, but even so, it proved that Schlatter's eye for comedic talent had in no way diminished -- the cast he assembled for the revival included several performers who later went on to stardom or superstardom, including a then-unknown Robin Williams.

Laugh-In's influence is extremely obvious in Monty Python's Flying Circus, Sesame Street and You Can't Do That on Television.

Some of the Catch Phrases Laugh-In made famous:

  • You bet your sweet bippy.
  • Sock it to me.
  • Here come da judge! Here come da judge!
  • Is that a chicken joke?
  • Veeeeerrrrrrry eeenteresting...but stupid!
  • Look that up in your Funk & Wagnall's!
  • Blow in my ear and I'll follow you anywhere.
  • Beautiful downtown Burbank.
  • "Say Goodnight, Dick." "Goodnight, Dick."

In 1969, Brown & Bigelow made a deck of Laugh-In playing cards, and NBC had a short-lived daytime game show, Letters to Laugh-In.


Tropes used in Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In include:

"Nixon": In 1969, I appeared on Laugh-In and said "Sock it to me. Sock it to me." Well, you can stop now!

  • Running Gag
  • The Seed Is Strong: The fabulous Farkle Family. Parents Frank and Fanny were both brunettes with good eyesight, but their dozen or so children were all freckled redheads with glasses -- just like "friend and trusted neighbor" Ferd Berfel. Played for Laughs in that Frank clearly never suspected Fanny of dallying with Ferd.
  • Special Guest: Just about every star of the day, often popping up unannounced in the midst of sketches. Sammy Davis Jr was probably the most frequent, but Nixon was by far the best-known example.
  • Subverted Kids Show: "Uncle Al".
  • That Wacky Nazi: Arte Johnson's Wolfgang.
  • Totally Radical: Humor about and for sixties youth culture, presented by middle-aged comedy veterans. Sometimes it worked better than others.
  • Trap Door
  • Unintentional Period Piece
  • Vanity Plate: The sound of George Schlatter laughing and clapping as an animated logo displays.