Box unleashes total 'Laugh-In' 50 years later

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 11, 2017
Photo by: Prime Entertainment Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were the hosts of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" from 1967 to 1973.

Owls Head — Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In: The Complete Series (Time Life/Direct Holdings, 38 DVDs, NR, 150+ hours). In an interview that is among the more than six hours of bonus material in this set, show host Dick Martin raises the question of whether "Laugh-In" helped elect President Richard M. Nixon. It may have been posed as a humorous question, but the fact is that during the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon taped an appearance, in which he said the show's classic line, "Sock it to me," while opposing candidate Hubert Humphrey declined an offer to appear on the show.

Make no mistake about it, "Laugh-In," which was unlike anything previously on television with its wackiness, was a very popular show. After debuting as a one-shot on Sept. 9, 1967, airing after a beauty pageant, the show caught the critics' eyes, if not the public's and NBC gave the go-ahead for a 13-episode first season, but programmed it opposite "The Lucy Show" and "Gunsmoke," the number one and three ranked shows, at 8 p.m. Mondays. By episode eight, "Laugh-In" had taken over the top spot in the viewer polls. (Sadly, "Laugh-In" replaced one of my favorite shows, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.")

"Laugh-In" did develop a lot from Martin and Dan Rowan's nightclub comedy act, which they had for about 30 years, including during the six-year run of "Laugh-In." However, the "Laugh-In Looks at the News" segments follow in the tradition of Great Britain's "That Was the Week That Was" (affectionately known as TW3), a satirical program hosted by David Frost that aired in 1962 and 1963. An American version of "TW3," also with Frost, aired on NBC from 1964 to 1965. Also across the Pond, "Monty Python's Flying Circus," a similar often silly sketch show with reoccurring bits, was gestating and would make it onto the BBC in 1969.

Rowan and Martin got together with producer George Schlatter (he had worked on the Judy Garland and Dinah Shore shows) to bring their night club comedy to television. Schlatter went on to hire a cast of then-unknowns who proved brilliant on the show, starting with Arte Johnson, whose most memorable character would be Wolfgang, the cigarette-smoking German soldier with the catchphrase, "Verrrry interesting." Johnson's other memorable character was Tyrone F. Horneigh (pronounced "horn-eye, but clearly meant to mean "horny" -- just one of many ways the show tricked the censors, as it had lots of sexual innuendo), a trench coat-wearing "dirty old man" who constantly tried to seduce Gladys Ormphby, Ruth Buzzi's brown-clad spinster as they encountered one another on a park bench. A classic exchange has Tyrone ask her, "Do you believe in the hereafter?" To which, she replies, "Of course I do," leading him to say, "Then you know what I'm here after."

Buzzi came from "The Steve Allen Show" and had done plenty of musical reviews on stage. She also appeared in the original production of "Sweet Charity" with Gwen Verdon. Buzzi, who was the only actor to appear in every episode of "Laugh-In," also played Busy-Buzzi, a Hedda Hopper-like gossip columnist; Doris Swizzler, who always got drunk with her husband Leonard (Martin); and paired with Debbie Reynolds as the two Burbank Airlines Stewardesses.

Future star Goldie Hawn, who would win an Oscar for her supporting role in "Cactus Flower" (1969), and Jo Anne Worley were known as much for their infectious laughs as the characters they played. Hawn, who was prone to giggles, was the sweetly dumb blonde who always got her lines mixed up, and often wore a bikini and had words painted on her body. The show made a star of Lily Tomlin and her characters, Ernestine, the nosy, condescending telephone operator (Schlatter had her use her middle finger while dialing, another thing the censors never caught on to), and Edith Ann, the little girl in the giant chair, which had to be specially made. Tomlin joined the show midway through season three.

The other regulars were Henry Gibson, noted for his off-the-wall poetry; Judy Carne, whose segments often ended with "Sock it to me" and being doused with water;  and Alan Sues, who joined up in season two and played Uncle Al, the kiddies' pal. Sues came from the improv/sketch group, The Mad Show. Gary Owens was the beautifully-voiced announcer, introducing the show from various downtown Burbank imagined locations. The show helped create another star in guest singer Tiny Tim, of the high-pitched and ukulele version of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Among the regular guests who made a huge impact was Sammy Davis Jr. in his "Here Comes the Judge" sketches.

The show always opened with Rowan (he died in 1987) and Martin doing some comedy dialogue and then heading into the Cocktail Party, which featured cast members and surprise guests delivering silly one- or two-line jokes. (The music heard here was later adapted for use on "The Muppet Show.") Another recurring feature was the Joke Wall, with the cast members opening panels to say their lines, and usually goofing up quite a bit. The popular Fickle Finger of Fate segment was added in season two.  Regular guests included Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, whose show aired from the next studio (often Carson's guests were poached for "Laugh-In"), Barbara Feldon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Peter Lawford, John Wayne, Flip Wilson and Henny Youngman. Digby Wolfe and Paul Keyes were the main writers, but Lorne Michaels, who went on to create "Saturday Night Live," came onboard in 1968.

This set contains all 140 original broadcast episodes from the six seasons, plus the pilot hour (complete with a Timex commercial in which the watch is attached to an ice skating jumper's skate). The episodes, 63 percent (89) of which have never been available before in any format, have been remastered from the original broadcast masters.

The bonus material is spread across four of the individual season sets inside the cardboard box container and a disc of only bonus material. On the latter disc, there is the complete March 7, 2001 25th anniversary special, hosted by Schlatter. Thirteen cast members join Martin onstage, with Hawn, Tomlin and Buzzi doing most of the talking. Humorously, Buzzi says she has spent the last 20 years cleaning toilets on airplanes, because she had become so recognizable and she did not want people to think she had left the toilets in less than a pristine condition. The disc also has an interview with Schlatter (28:33), filled with anecdotes about the cast. He says, "We were breeding anarchists." There also is an interview with Sues (19:05) and Schlatter accepting the 1968 Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety or Musical Series. Overall, the show was nominated for 34 Emmys and won seven, including four in 1968. It won the Golden Globe for Best TV Show in 1969 and Buzzi won a Golden Globe in 1973. There were four other Golden Globe nominations, including two for Best TV Show.

The original pilot show is a bonus feature on disc one of season one. It includes the hilarious sketch in which Eden plays the pack leader of 28- and 29-year-old divorced female scouts who sell their cookies after midnight outside of Fort Dix. The disc has another, longer Schlatter interview (40:35); cast reunion highlights (14:56, duplicates the bonus disc feature); and often hilarious bloopers (24:18), including a lot of Don Rickles and even Bob Hope. Johnson as Wolfgang says to Hope, "I waited for you every Christmas."

Season two's extras include a very entertaining interview with Martin (20:42), who points out that Rowan was a used car salesman when he met him and they had only nine days to put together their first nightclub act. Martin went on to direct some 230 TV shows after "Laugh-In" ended and Rowan retired in the late 1970s. There also are interviews with Owens (20:25) and Buzzi (25:05), very entertaining as well. A Tomlin interview is spread over seasons three and four, and totals 20:40. Season three also has a fine Pepperdine University tribute to Schlatter, who donated his papers to the university. Larry King is the tribute host. Speakers include Johnson and other cast members, Shirley MacLaine and, via film, Jay Leno. There are some good clip collections, including one featuring guests Gore Vidal and Barry Goldwater. The other season four extra is an interview with Johnson (25:02). There are no extras for seasons five and six. The set also comes with a collectible, 32-page memory book, filled with archival photos, show images, classic jokes and one-liners. Grade for set: A+

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