By Frank Barron
The Best of Laugh-In is part of special programming premiering on PBS stations beginning March 5 and airing throughout the month. That’s right, no kidding, Laugh-In is coming to PBS. Locally it will be on PBS SoCal KOCE.
The revolutionary comedy-variety show that began in the psychedelic ’60s changed the face of TV and became an important training ground for an entire generation of young writers and comic talent.
Long before Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart were making humorous, irreverent social/political commentary, there was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. It was created and produced by George Schlatter, one of the greatest comic minds behind the scenes in show business.
It was 1967, and NBC was debuting a strange new program called Laugh-In. Those of us who remember recall it as an overnight sensation. It was highly innovative, fast-paced, unstructured comedy. It featured blackouts, sketches, songs, dances, one-liners and numerous guest stars showing up for the party. It became a series and the era’s “Must See TV,” lasting until 1973.
Behind it all was Schlatter, who brought in Gary Owens as the announcer who cupped his hand over his ear and boomed, “From beautiful downtown Burbank,” to start off each hilarious show.
Well, Schlatter, Owens, Jo Anne Worley (twirling her huge pink boa around her neck), Ruth Buzzi and Lily Tomlin from the original cast were on hand for a PBS interview session that announced the upcoming special airing during March pledge drives. The reunion of the old team was as zany as the original show. Schlatter said that “there may be more Laugh-In specials for PBS —maybe for the holidays.” And he implores the audiences to “give to PBS during those pledge breaks. It’s the money that will bring us back.”
It was a comedic free-for-all, listening to the old gang recall some of Laugh-In’s best moments. Each had to top the other, and the love for each other was genuine.
Schlatter explained the success of the show was “the writing, the editing, but mostly it was the cast that made it work. Nobody had done this kind of show before, and not since. We were groundbreaking with our subject matter. We had the energy, some times working until 2 a.m., and we taped 22 hours every week just to get that one hour for NBC.”
He explained that he had been visiting a restaurant in Burbank where Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were doing a nightclub act. Owens was there because he recommended the team to the producer. Gary, in fact, said he personally “auditioned in the men’s room of the Burbank restaurant, because the acoustics were great. I cupped my hand over my ear as the old time radio announcers did, because they had to drown out the band’s loud music behind them.”
Gary pointed out the unbelievable statistic that the show “had about 60 million viewers each week.” And Schlatter proudly added, “We were never dirty. We were bawdy. We were naughty and provocative, but we never had to bleep a dirty word.”
Schlatter talked about the major guest stars, noting, “John Wayne was nice, with a great sense of humor. We had to do presidential candidate Richard Nixon with only one line, ‘Sock it to me,’ because of a Congressional rule about campaigning on TV. Kirk Douglas came on because his son Michael wanted him to be on the show. Edgar Bergen came on with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, and at one point there was a huge unexpected noise behind them. And only Charlie turned around to see what it was.”
The Best of Laugh-In revisits the ‘60s and shows the uniqueness of this unpredictable comedy-variety show. Who can ever forget Sammy Davis, Jr. telling everyone “Here come de judge,” or Arte Johnson as the German soldier finding everything “verrry interesting!” And the memorable characters created with Lily Tomlin’s snorting telephone operator; Ruth Buzzi as the spinster on the park bench; Jo Anne Worley and the chicken jokes; and Goldie Hawn’s uncontrollable giggles.
Has it really been about 45 years? You bet your sweet bippy!