Tune Out and Turn On…Laugh In


Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin Were Cool

On this Date in History:  When I was a kid, I had a lunch box.  My sister had a Get Smart lunch box and I wanted one that was cooler.  So, I got a Man From U.N.C.L.E. lunchbox.  I cried though when the thermos broke.  Most of the time the glass broke inside them but mine, for some reason, had the insulating cork inside the top come out as the top somehow came unraveled like a corkscrew.   The demise of my thermos in my lunchbox was probably about the same time that the show was cancelled.  The last episode of  The Man From U.N.C.L.E aired on NBC on January 15, 1968.  The end of my lunch box thermos and Napoleon Solo was the beginning of one of TV’s most iconic shows.  On September 9, 1967 NBC aired a one hour special.  It was called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  It was a very loosely formatted comedy-variety show.  The hosts were the comedic team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin.  I loved Dick Martin.  He was right up there with Jonathan Winters and George Carlin as the funniest guys I had ever seen. 

Goldie Hawn

They would begin the show, sometimes dressed in tuxedoes, doing a brief introductory routine.  Rowan was the straight man and Martin came across as a fun-loving, partying, lady-chaser who just seemed to show up without any idea of what was going on.  It was up to Rowan to keep him in line.  From there, they would go to the cocktail party, which was a  set with just about the entire cast.  There were girls in bikin’s with words and phrases written on the exposed part of their bodies and they, along with everyone else would dance.  Periodically, the music would stop like musical chairs and someone would serve up a short joke. 

The show lasted an hour and had numerous skits and routines.  The special did so well that NBC used  it as a replacement for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which had a pretty successful 4 year run.  On this date in 1968, the first episode of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In aired on a Monday night.  It was a tough spot because it was going up against The Lucy Show and Gunsmoke.  I mean, we’re talking about Lucille Ball and Matt Dillon. 

Dan Rowan

But, in fairly short order, Laugh-In rose to the top of the ratings.    Television in the late 60’s had begun to address modern social issues, politics and tried to embrace the hippie culture.   Shows like Sonny and Cher and the Smothers Brothers really pushed the censors and the polical commentary by the Smother’s Brothers eventually drove CBS to cancel them even though it was a very highly rated and successful venture.  But, NBC seemed to give Laugh-In a longer leash.  When Dan Rowan did his news report from the desk (something Saturday Night Live picked up on later) he regularly made anti-Vietnam and anti-Lyndon Johnson references.   He also did something clever called “news of the future.”  I remember once in his news of the future, he referred to President Regan.  At the time, Reagan was governor of California. 

Verrry Interesting

Now, aside from the showing of consumption of cocktails at the party and the political commentary, the show also featured regular jokes of a sexual nature.  I suppose NBC must have figured they had nothing to lose with the show going up against two powerhouses like Lucy and Matt Dillon, so they just let it go and told the network censors to take a hike for an hour.  Like the early version of Saturday Night Live, the show was a showcase for the talents of many young comedians.  Lilly Tomlin made her mark with her recurring character Ernestine the operator and the little girl in the big chair named Edith Anne.  Ruth Buzzi also began a reasonably successful career.  Judy Carne seemed to have a british accent and gained fame as the “sock it to me” girl.  She would say “sock it to me” and a bucket of water would be tossed on her.  Throughout the five year run of the show, “sock it to me” became the popular catch phrase.  Henry Gibson had a number of sketches with regular characters including a weekly bit of poetry.  Then there was Arte Johnson and his dirty old man who constantly harrassed the little old lady played by Buzzi.  Johnson also had a recurring segment as a german soldier who would say “very interesting.”  Jo Anne Worley…well..was Jo Anne Worley.

Click Image to See Tiny Tim and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips"

After awhile, big named celebrities would make cameo appearances with typically just a one liner.   John Wayne showed up, which was a big deal because he was so conservative and had been a big supporter of the Vietnam War.  Dan Rowan had a character called General Bullright who advocated constant war, so it was a little odd that the Duke would show up.  Frank Sinatra showed up now and again as did others.  Sammy Davis, Jr. did more than just make a brief appearance as he came on as the judge and did his “here comes the judge” routine. Flip Wilson’s career show skyward after appearing on Laugh In and and an overnight sensation was born with Tiny Tim singing “Tip Toe Through the Tulips.”

Click to see Nixon and Sock It to Me?

Perhaps the biggest splash of the time came when Richard Nixon during the presidential campaign in 1968 thought it would loosen up his image by appearing. By that time, actors in Hollywood had become more openly political and politicians began to chum up with Hollywood.  But still, no one would ever imagine the stodgy Nixon to show up on Laugh-In.   He did and simply said “sock it to me” though I recall it was more delivered like a question.  I believe it only lasted just 4 seconds but some think the echo lasted much longer and,  it didn’t hurt.  Nixon won the 1968 election.   His opponent, Hubert Humphrey had declined his invitation and some think that really hurt Humphrey but helped Nixon secure the win in November.

Click Image to See Goldie Hawn Explain Everything

Just like Saturday Night Live, the cast members who gained some fame moved on to exploit their new fame.  Goldie Hawn was portrayed as a silly blonde and she went on to make movies that portrayed her in a completely different light.  I had always thought that Arte Johnson would go on to great things but he never seemed to catch on, though he may have done some writing.  Dick Martin not only wrote for many successful comedy shows, he also was a director of many popular shows.  He also served as the Executive Producer, along with Dan Rowan, for Laugh-In.  One thing that was a constant was Dan Rowan’s cigarette.  That wasn’t a big deal back then because people regularly smoked on TV.  It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that smoking became a taboo.  He died from lymphatic cancer in 1987, about two weeks past the 20th anniverary of Laugh-In’s first special.  There was another woman, Theresa Graves, whom I thought would make it big. I thought she was hot.  She died too young at age 54 in a house fire.  Not sure what happened to Alan Suess for that matter.  They tried to strike lightning twice and come out with a new Laugh-In in the late 1970’s but the atmosphere was different in the country and on the show.  It was a disaster.  But, one of the new young, unknown comedians from that show was Robin Williams, who landed on Mork and Mindy shortly after the revised Laugh-In died in 1978.

I'd stay up late just to see Theresa Graves

Laugh-In came on during the last time slot in prime time.  My mom and dad usually made me go to bed but I sometimes coaxed them into letting me watch.  They would laugh at things that I didn’t understand but I would laugh anyway to try and make them think that I was all grown up.  My sister charged me with laughing at things I didn’t understand.  She was right, but I pretended that she was stupid. But, the parts that I did understand, I thought was funny.  But, when I look at it now, it seems kinda dumb.  I suppose part of the appeal to the show was the novelty and the change in represented from a more innocent, controled structure of television to entertainment television that had a social or political message.  Now, we’ve gone to reality TV.  What seemed so revolutionary back in 1968 now seems to represent the innocence of  a time gone by.  If TV is so good today, how come we continue to see reruns from the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s and then…not much.  Could be because the actors of those shows do not receive royalties.  But it also could be that, aside from shows like MASH or All in the Family (which began around 1970), that television today really isn’t good enough for anyone 10 years from now to want to watch.

Severe threat Sat Night Well South Southwest of the area

Weather Bottom Line:  In the near term, the forecast is pretty much on schedule.  Temperatures will remain pretty steady with clouds sticking around.  We may get close to 50 by late in the day.  As I’ve been saying all week, Saturday looks to be the best we will do this week and in the forseeable future so enjoy temperatures in the upper 50’s to near 60 while you can.  We get affected by all of those storms in the west and colder air starts coming down.  Saturday night, we may have thunderstorms but the severe risk is well to our southwest.  Sunday again is mild in the 50s but there will be a chance for rain.  Then a cold front comes through and by Monday afternoon or evening, snow shows up in the picture.  Now, the NAM is silent on snow.  But, the longer range models all have a secondary trof that swings through and provides a snow chance.  The GFS wants to have light snow from late Monday through Wednesday with totals of around an inch.  But, others cut us off for Wednesday and reintroduces snow on Thursday.   Most of the models want to form a low or inverted trof along the Gulf and run that through the SE US throwing snow back over the cold air our way.  The feature itself is pretty consistent but the timing and direction is all messed up with the computer models.  So, we’ll see.  While it’s not set in stone and not as drastic as we saw earlier this month, I think its entirely possible we stay below freezing after Monday evening through the rest of the week, but again, there are some variables at play….either way…you’re not going to see temperatures anywhere near what we have this weekend so get out and about on Saturday.  Just beware, it’s a false spring.

5 Responses

  1. So nothing made after the early 70’s is in syndicated reruns? Really? I bet I could turn on the tv and go 24 hours on reruns of Star Trek TNG, Law and Order, Seinfeld and the Simpsons alone.

  2. Tom, I didn’t say nothing made after the early 70’s is in syndicated rerun. I said there is not much and that is in relative terms. And the shows you mentioned are not nearly as widely circulated as many older shows from the day. From those you mentioned, I bet that the Simpsons and Star Trek TNG (a concept developed in the 1960’s and with the original still being shown) will have the longest shelf life. There are some shows in syndication now that show up on cable channels that need to fill program time. That makes it more amazing that there aren’t more recent shows in syndication because there are so many hours to fill on so many channels. Also, the shows that are in syndication are very recent. I bet there is more shows from the 50’s in re-runs than in the 1980’s. It’s all up for opinion though and not worth getting worked up over. Just fun and interesting to consider. I hope you enjoyed the look back at Laugh In though and thanx for writing.

  3. You’re right, and I’m sorry that my comment was so abrasive. I guess the part of your essay that raised my ire was the last sentence where you say, “But it also could be that, aside from shows like MASH or All in the Family (which began around 1970), that television today really isn’t good enough for anyone 10 years from now to want to watch.”

    This line just makes you seem like an old fogey, as we live in a golden age of television. Worse, it is completely off-topic from the rest of the article.

  4. No problem. I appreciate your comments and they are worth consideration. As I state in the “about” page, I will post all comments as long as certain boundaries of decorum are held in check. And, I will not say that you are wrong…besides….Snow White would certainly agree with you. She says that I’m acting like an old man more and more.

  5. Arte Johnson got married, around 3 years before Patricia Travers gave up the violin and dropped out of sight.

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