Laugh-In’s silliness still fun, even for those born after ’73
What is it? Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, complete series, 140 hourlong episodes on 38 discs from Time Life
How much? $250 When? Now
What’s a “laugh-in”? A twisted, trippy take on the “ins” of the 1960s: Be-ins. Love-ins. Sleep-ins. As host Dan Rowan says, “A laugh-in is a frame of mind.” A chance to “sit back, laugh and forget about other ‘ins.’”
It was Sept. 9, 1967, and the Vietnam War was raging, “Summer of Love” had just ended and hippie culture was transforming the country. Beins. Love-ins. Sit-ins. That’s when an odd special aired on NBC.
There were marching protesters holding signs reading “Thamp out lith-ping” and “Up with mini skirts.” A wild dance party with an Arab sheik pouring drinks, joke-telling and gogo dancing guests. A little song tribute to the eyelash. And an avian-theme song about Lady Bird Johnson, America’s first lady at the time.
It was so popular that a full series was created starting on Jan. 22, 1968. It lasted for five, utterly insane seasons (to May 14, 1973) and, over the years, its cast included Lily Tomlin, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley, Henry Gibson and a very young Goldie Hawn.
The sketch comedy series was, essentially, a zany, offthe-wall satire, poking fun at everything from miniskirts to Congress. Nothing was sacred. Of course, side-by-side with the satire and political commentary were bizarre bits like Ruth Buzzi giggling to the tune of “Holiday for Strings.”
Each episode started off with an introduction by straight man Dan Rowan and dim-witted Dick Martin. From there, it tumbled down into chaotic nuttiness that would include recurring characters, sketches and jokes such as:
Cast members would pop out from behind little doors or windows in a big, brightly colored wall to tell jokes.
Judy Carne would find herself doused with water, bopped on the head, falling through a trap door or otherwise suffering some calamity every time she said “Sock it to me.”
Infuriating, obnoxious telephone operator Ernestine (Tomlin) made prank calls and otherwise made life hell for customers.
In the Party Scene, cast and guests would dance away to modern music, then make some off-the-wall or politically tinged comment every time the music stopped.
And don’t forget all the catch phrases: “Here comes the judge,” “You bet your sweet bippy,” and “Ve-e-e-ry interesting.”
The show was popular enough that it was able to attract a pretty amazing list of guest performers. Comedians like Jack Benny and Johnny Carson and novelty acts like Tiny Tim aren’t too surprising. But seeing stoic John Wayne reciting poetry and presidential candidate Richard Nixon saying “Sock it to me” are downright surreal and awesome.
How is it? Game-changing, mind-bending, thought-provoking. But more than that, it’s just plain funny.
The show is fast-paced, even by today’s standards. If one joke falls flat, it doesn’t matter because before you know it, it’s on to the next sketch.
One minute, it’s as substantial as Silly String. The next, it’s as sharp as barbed wire.
Granted, the fact that much of the comedy centered on topical humor means much of it is very dated now. But for people who were alive then or who have made a study of the time period, the jokes are easy to get. Everyone else can get a little harmless history lesson.
And, of course, learn that if Queen Elizabeth married Steve McQueen, she’d be Queen McQueen.
The set comes in a sturdy, psychedelic storage box. The colorful booklet is full of photos, quotations and a short essay. Each season set has a season guide with a breakdown of episode content.
What about bonus features? There’s a separate bonus disc that has:
■ The 25th Anniversary Cast Reunion TV special from 1993, which is a 50-minute group interview in front of an audience.
■ A 28-minute interview with executive producer George Schlatter
■ A 19-minute interview with cast member Alan Sues
■ Footage from the Emmy Awards titled “How We Won the Emmys”
Scattered over the season discs are more interviews, the pilot episode, an epic (24 minutes) blooper reel, a 52-minute filmed tribute to Schlatter and highlights from that 25th anniversary reunion.
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Next week: Class, Season 1; The Magicians, Season 2; The Missing, Season 2; Rake, Season 2; The Tunnel, Season 2; Underground, Season 2