I see dead people. Or to put it more accurately, I often think about famous people just before their deaths, eventhough I have no idea they are ill. Although Rowan and Martin's Laugh-Inhasn't crossed my mind in years, I found myself talking about one of my favorite sketches yesterday. It was the running gag with the Farkelfamily. Mr. and Mrs. Farkel were played by dark-haired JoAnne Worley and DanRowan. In every sketch they would introduce their huge number of children(including twins Simon and Gar Farkel). The joke was that all of the Farkel childrenhad bright red hair and freckles and looked exactly like the Farkels' neighborFred Berfel, played by co-host Dick Martin. Mr. Farkel never seemed remotelysuspicious. I guess you had to be there, but I thought this sketch washilarious. I forgot exactly why I brought this up, I think it wasduring a discussion about the genetics of red hair, but I was surprised to readthis morning that Dick Martin died yesterday at exactly the time I wasremembering his show.
It's been exactly 40 years ago since Laugh-In premiered onNBC, replacing another favorite of mine, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I was eightyears old at the time and I'm sure that most of the jokes and constant sexualinnuendo flew right over my head but I remember being transfixed by thefrenetic pace of the show. Was this the start of the ADHD generation of TVviewers? As producer George Schlatter said at the time: "There'll be no longjokes. Everything in the show will be one minute or less. I believe adultaudiences are bored with the long and rubbery stuff in comedy."
"Sure, there's more than anyone can absorb in an hour," admits
Schlatter, "but today people -- especially kids -- can assimilate faster. The casual
viewer expects more of a show than the big production numbers of 15 years ago.
Who says a show has to have a beginning, middle, end? With this show, we're
knocking down the walls that have been hemming us in, freeing ourselves,
blowing our minds. We're trying to reflect the things that are going on in the
world. But we don't have a cause ... we don't have a banner. We're a put-on, not a
Frankly, I'm not sure Laugh-In withstands the test of timewhen viewed today, but no one can deny that it broke a hell of a lot ofbarriers when it came on the air in 1968. Remember, this was the era of TheFlying Nun, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. Ribald jokes about sexand politics were certainly a far cry from the puerile exploits of SallyField's Sister Bertrille or the anti-feminist machinations of Billie Jo, BobbieJo, and Betty Jo Bradley in the aptly named town of Hooterville.
"Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls."
"You bet your sweet bippy!"
"Blow in my ear and I'll follow you anywhere."
"Here come da judge!"
"Good night, Dick."
And, of course, the infamous "Sock it to me!" often said bya nearly naked Judy Carne who would then be doused with a bucket of water. Whocan forget when Richard Nixon himself appeared on the show just before the 1968presidential election saying "Sock it to ME??" Hubert Humphrey was invited onthe show as well but declined. Schlatter said he heard Humphrey say later thatthis might have cost him the election.
So many great people got their big break on "Laugh-In." Thisis where Lily Tomlin first did her little girl character Edith Ann ("...andthat's the truth **raspberry**!") and busybody telephone operator Ernestine("One ringy-dingy...two ringy dingies...a gracious good afternoon, have I reachedthe party to whom I am speaking?"). Arte Johnson perfected his Nazi soldier andthe dirty old man who would always be attacked by Ruth Buzzi's Gladys Ormphby,and Henry Gibson would earnestly recite his treacly poetry including one numbercalled "Keep a-Goin" that Gibson would later turn into a country/western tunefor Robert Altman's "Nashville." Other regulars included Alan Sues whose"sissy" characters always made the NBC censors nervous, Gary Owens as anold-style radio announcer with one hand always cupped over his ear, and a bevy of rotating babes including Teresa Graves, Pamela Rodgers, Barbara Sharma, and Chelsea Brown.
I was never a big fan of the dumb blond character but GoldieHawn was perfect as the bubbling airhead who kept forgetting her lines. I'mstill not sure if this was a total act or if the writers were just exploiting her nervousness.I remember seeing Hawn the following year in her Oscar-winning performance in"Cactus Flower" and being amazed that she didn't seem dumb at all.
Everyone in Hollywood seemed to appear on "Laugh-In" at onetime or another. Old-timers such as John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, FrankSinatra, and Mickey Rooney appeared alongside younger guest stars such asfalsetto singing sensation Tiny Tim, Flip Wilson, Cher, and Charo. Where else onTV could you see combinations such as Beatle Ringo Starr interacting with CarolChanning?
The comedy on "Laugh-In" was often groan-worthy, but it wasso fast-paced it never seemed to matter. Here are two typical lines from theshow:
"If Queen Elizabeth married Steve McQueen, she'd be Queen
"The Republicans have a good chance this year, but they'll
probably spoil it by nominating somebody."
George Schlatter had more guts than many producers do today. When NBC made the decision to move "Laugh-In" from Monday nights at 8 to Fridaynights at 10, Schlatter publicly denounced the network in the press. "It's thesingle most stupid thing they could do," he told a reporter. "They're jerks. Idon't program, I produce. But I can't see moving a show that has changed thewhole viewing pattern. We're getting people who were bored with TV...college kidsget together and watch, a five-year-old can watch with his grandfather becausethere's something that will appeal to any age." In the end, Schlatter got hisway and the NBC left the show where it was.
Needless to say, the show constantly gave the NBC censorsfits. As an article three weeks into the shows run stated:
At NBC the department of standards and practices is going
slightly mad trying to come up with some guidelines for Laugh-In's quick sight
gags and one-liners which pour out of the tube so fast that many people
(including the standards and practices man) don't get the point until it's too
Several minutes were cut from two consecutive shows in March1968. First several references to LBJ after he made his decision not to run forPresident, and the next week just after the assassination of Martin LutherKing, Jr., in Memphis.
Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In was 3 minutes and 35 seconds short
Monday night on NBC, due to deletions from the program which were felt to be in
bad taste following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Several Negro
jokes were trimmed from the pre-taped show, along with various references to
President Johnson. Negro comedian Flip Wilson had delivered some of the lines
which were edited.
TV went a little nuts that week. Black guest stars werestripped out of most variety shows by the skittish producers, often replaced bylily white stars such as Connie Stevens or the Lennon Sisters. Yes, what afitting tribute to Martin Luther King--remove all African-Americans from theairwaves!
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were the perfect hosts for allthis chaos and anarchy. "We designed it so that we are two relatively normal guyswandering through a sea of madness," Martin said. Rowan died in 1987 at the ageof 65 and Dick died yesterday just after 6:00 pm at the age of 86. I've neverseen performers before or since having so much visible fun on a set. Manymistakes made it onto the show but some appeared only in blooper reels:
Say good night, Dick.