Social Icons
September 05, 2018

It's A Mod, Mod World

In the late ‘60s — when sit-ins and love-ins were common forms of political and social expression — along came Laugh-In, making NBC the place to be on Monday nights. On the 50th anniversary of its debut, emmy takes a fond look back (through wire-framed hippie glasses, of course).

Jane Wollman Rusoff
  • “Sweet Brother” Dick Whittington (top right), an L.A. radio talk-show personality, performed occasional cameos; middle, from left: Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Goldie Hawn, Chelsea Brown; bottom from left: Jo Anne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Henry Gibson, Judy Carne, Dave Madden

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Dan Rowan and Dick Martin: Apart from emceeing and doing shtick (like bestowing The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award), Rowan from time to time played the right-wing General Bull Right. He died in 1987. Martin, the goofy one of the duo, started out selling jokes to radio shows. On Laugh-In, he made “You bet your sweet bippy!” a catchphrase. He died in 2008.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • George Schlatter: Laugh-In’s creator-producer knew how to outfox the NBC censors. He would later establish the American Comedy Awards, and produce the Grammy Awards and Muhammad Ali’s 60th birthday celebration show, among other specials and series. (With Schlatter is Dan Rowan, right.)

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Arte Johnson: In German stormtrooper gear and with a heavy German accent, he would comment on the previous skit: “Verrry interrresting… but shtoopid!” or some other put-down kicker. His Tyrone F. Horneigh, a dirty old man hitting on Ruth Buzzi’s dowdy Gladys Ormphby, always ended up getting walloped with her handbag.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Lily Tomlin: She became a star overnight with her first appearance doing snarky, snorty telephone operator Ernestine, a character she brought to the show: “One ringy-dingy… two ringy-dingies. A gracious good afternoon. Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?” While on Laugh-In, Tomlin developed five-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann, a loquacious brat whose monologues always ended with “And that’s the truth!” followed by a loud Bronx cheer.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Gary Owens: Cupping his ear in a broadcast booth, he caricatured old-time radio announcers while spouting comic non sequiturs. He died in 2015.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Ruth Buzzi: Her frumpy Gladys Ormphby fended off Tyrone F. Horneigh’s advances and lascivious mumblings on a park bench, where she routinely clobbered him with her purse. Buzzi was a regular on a summer Steve Allen Show and had a recurring role on That Girl.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Dave Madden: His quiet character was best known for sipping milk and tossing confetti. The comic left Laugh-In after its first season to costar in The Partridge Family, which made his career. He died in 2014.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Alan Sues: As prickly, hungover “Uncle Al the Kiddies’ Pal,” he hosted a children’s show. Sues, whose characters had a gay sensibility, also inhabited a jock tennis player and “Big Al,” a campy sportscaster. He died in 2011.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Goldie Hawn: Always flubbing her lines, and with a high-pitched giggle, her ditzy persona seemed organic. In most episodes she was bikini-clad and body-painted with newsy text and pictures, dancing a wild frug. During her first year on Laugh-In, she was also in the cast of the series Good Morning, World.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Henry Gibson: Clasping a huge flower, he played an earnest Southern poet reading his quirky work. It was a character he had similarly performed in nightclubs and on other TV shows. He died in 2009.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Judy Carne: Spouting “Sock it to me!,” she’d get drenched with buckets of water or befall some other indignity. Early on, she played a switchboard operator answering calls with “NBC, beautiful downtown Burbank!” — a comic knock to the city where NBC Studios produced the show. Carne died in 2015.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • Jo Anne Worley: Flamboyant and with a robust, comic operatic–style voice, her disapproving critique from The Joke Wall — “Is that another chicken joke?” — became a national catchphrase. Worley had worked in Off-Broadway revues and guest-starred on several series prior to Laugh-In.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions
  • The Joke Wall: top from left: Arte Johnson, Chelsea Brown, Henry Gibson, J.J. Barry; middle: Ruth Buzzi, Dave Madden; bottom: Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley, Alan Sues, Dan Rowan, guest star Nancy Sinatra and Dick Martin. Chelsea Brown was one of the few African Americans in the cast of a TV show at the time She died in 2017.

    Courtesy of George Schlatter Productions

Fifty years ago, one of the most innovative and irreverent TV shows of the era premiered in primetime.

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was a sassy comedy-variety hour that blended old-fashioned one-liners, burlesque-style skits and blackouts with hip, subversive comedy and zany characters — a major draw for younger viewers.

Though much of the humor, especially the quick-fire sight gags, was patently silly, the show employed it to focus on and satirize the hot-button political, sexual and racial issues of the time.

The NBC series popularized such famous, often sexually suggestive catchphrases as “Sock it to me!”; “You bet your sweet bippy!”; “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!”; “Verrry interrresting…”; and “Here come da Judge!” The last lampooned an old Chitlin’ Circuit routine originated by Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham. It was initially performed on the show by Sammy Davis Jr., then by Markham himself under a year-long contract.

Laugh-In, a play on words of the hippie “be-ins” and “love-ins” of the day, strode onto a traditionally conservative TV landscape when it debuted in 1968. Other shows premiering that year included such clearly tasteful standard fare as Here’s Lucy, Mayberry R.F.D. and The Doris Day Show. In contrast, Laugh-In dared to spoof taboo subjects, made liberal use of sexual double entendres and was often branded tasteless.

The show was created and produced (1968-72) by George Schlatter, who had earlier produced specials for Judy Garland and Dinah Shore.

With skits that parodied politics and put-ons about feminism, innuendo about straight and gay sexuality, plus semi-veiled references to marijuana — “grass” jokes that often went over censors’ heads — Laugh-In was indeed controversial. The FBI even opened a file on the show when some viewers called for axing it because a skit poked fun at bureau director J. Edgar Hoover.

With its breakneck gags and visual shtick, Laugh-In won seven Emmys. It was outspoken in its politics and campy sensibility, not to mention its spoofs of the establishment and jokes about the racial divide. Chief writers were Paul Keyes, said to be a conservative Republican, and Digby Wolfe, a liberal.

Hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, a successful nightclub comedy team, were the relatively grounded pair amid a gaggle of zany characters played by talented performers — some veterans, others newcomers. Two of the latter, Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, saw their careers soar as a result of Laugh-In exposure.

The show arrived on the heels of a year of intense upheaval in America, marked by violent anti-Vietnam War protests and race riots — turmoil the hippie counterculture and its “Summer of Love” event in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury attempted to relieve.

Laugh-In’s premiere on January 22, 1968, preceded by eight days the Tet Offensive of North Vietnamese attacks on South Vietnam. That spring, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. If high ratings were any measure, the show’s formula proved cathartic in those deeply troubling times.

Virtually every major star wanted to be a guest; those appearing included Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, Diana Ross, Ringo Starr, Tiny Tim, John Wayne and Orson Welles. Richard Nixon, campaigning for U.S. president at the time, famously showed up querying — and sounding incredulous himself — “Sock it to me?”

Originating with a special in September 1967, Laugh-In ran until March 12, 1973. The show was unquestionably influenced by comedian-writer- producer Ernie Kovacs, who, in creating TV comedy, made the most of the medium’s visual advantages. And today, Laugh-In lives on in the 43-season run of Saturday Night Live.

Take a look above for a glimpse at key players — plus a few others — and their wacky Laugh-In comedy bits.

This article originally appeared in emmy magaine, Issue No. 8, 2018

Add Your Comment

Must See

Amy Poehler Says Yes

Amy Poehler says yes to acting, writing, producing and directing. And given the chance, everyone says yes to working with her.

Foundation Online Auction Is Live!

The Television Academy Foundation Online Auction is open! Bid on one-of-a-kind experiences!

Five New Honorees Inducted into Hall of Fame

The Television Academy honored five new members into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. See the presentations, acceptances, and a photo gallery of the festivities.

Browser Requirements
The sites look and perform best when using a modern browser.

We suggest you use the latest version of any of these browsers:

Visiting the site with Internet Explorer or other browsers may not provide the best viewing experience.

Close Window