& Martin's Laugh-In
was one of
TV’s classics, one of those rare programs which was not only an overnight
sensation, but was highly innovative, created a raft of new stars, and started
trends in comedy which other programs would follow. In some ways, it was not
original at all, being a cross between Olsen & Johnson's Helzapoppin'
(which in turn traced its lineage to the frantic, knockabout comedy of the
Keystone Cops) and the highly topical satire of That Was The Week That Was.
But Laugh-In crystallized a kind of contemporary, fast-paced,
unstructured comedy “happening” that was exactly what an agitated America wanted
was first seen as a one-time special on September 9, 1967. It was such an
enormous hit that it inevitably led to a series premiering the following
January. Its lightning-fast pace took full advantage of the technical
capabilities of television and videotape. Blackouts, sketches, one-liners, and
cameo appearances by famous show-business celebrities and even national
politicians were all edited into a frenetic whole. The regular cast was large
and the turnover high, and of the 40 regulars who appeared in the series only
four were with it from beginning to end – the two hosts, announcer Gary Owens,
and Ruth Buzzi.
of Laugh-In was shtick, a comic routine or trademark repeated over
and over until it was closely associated with a performer. People love it, come
to expect it, and talk about it the next morning after the show. All great
comedians have at least one, but what was remarkable about Laugh-In was
that it developed a whole repertoire of sight gags and catchphrases using
little-known talent exclusively (though some of them became quite famous later).
Among the favorites: Arte Johnson as the German soldier, peering out from behind
a potted palm and murmuring, "Verrrry interesting!"; Ruth Buzzi as the little
old lady with an umbrella, forever whacking the equally decrepit old man who
snuggled up beside her on a park bench; Lily Tomlin as the sarcastic, nasal
telephone operator (even the phone company wanted to hire her to do commercials
using that routine – she wouldn't); Gary Owens as the outrageously
over-modulated announcer, facing the microphone, hand cupped to ear; Alan Sues
as the grinning moron of a sports announcer; Goldie Hawn as the giggling dumb
blonde, and so on.
Some of the
devices of the show were the Cocktail Party, Letters to Laugh-In, The Flying
Fickle Finger of Fate Award, Laugh-In Looks at the News (of the past, present,
and future), Hollywood News with Ruth Buzzi, the gags written on the undulating
body of a girl in a bikini, and the joke wall at the close of each show, in
which cast members kept popping out of windows to throw each other one-liners –
or a bucket of water.
catchphrases came out of the sketches and blackouts on Laugh-In, and some
became national bywords. It is said that a foreign delegate at the United
Nations once approached an American emember of that organization to ask, in all
seriousness, “I have heard a phrase in your country that I do not understand.
What is it you mean by ‘bippy?” Besides “You bet your bippy,” there were: "Sock
it to me" (splash!); "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls," "Beautiful
Downtown Burbank," and even "Here come da judge!"
never let up. If it wasn't a short clip of a rain-coated adult falling off a
tricycle, it was a shot of Richard M. Nixon declaring solemnly declaring "Sock
it to me." It didn't even end at the closing credits, as jokes kept flying and,
finally, one pair of hands was heard clapping until a station break forcibly
went straight to the top of the TV ratings and was the number-one program on the
air for its first two full seasons, 1968-1970. It then began to drop off as the
best talent left to pursue newfound careers, and finally ended its run in 1973.