I see dead people. Or to put it more accurately, I often think about famous people just before their deaths, even though I have no idea they are ill. Although “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” hasn’t crossed my mind in years, I found myself talking about one of my favorite sketches yesterday.
It was the running gag with the Farkel family. Mr. and Mrs. Farkel were played by dark-haired JoAnne Worley and Dan Rowan. 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 children had bright red hair and freckles and looked exactly like the Farkels’ neighbor Ferd Berfel, played by co-host Dick Martin. Mr. Farkel never seemed remotely suspicious. I guess you had to be there, but I thought this sketch was hilarious. I forgot exactly why I brought this up, I think it was during a discussion about the genetics of red hair, but I was surprised to read this morning that Dick Martin died yesterday at exactly the time I was remembering his show.
It’s been exactly 40 years ago since “Laugh-In” premiered on NBC, replacing another favorite of mine, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” I was eight years old at the time and I’m sure that most of the jokes and constant sexual innuendo flew right over my head but I remember being transfixed by the frenetic pace of the show. Was this the start of the ADHD generation of TV viewers? As producer George Schlatter said at the time: “There’ll be no long jokes. Everything in the show will be one minute or less. I believe adult audiences 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 put-down.”
Frankly, I’m not sure “Laugh-In” withstands the test of time when viewed today, but no one can deny that it broke a hell of a lot of barriers when it came on the air in 1968. Remember, this was the era of “The Flying Nun,” “Green Acres,” and “Petticoat Junction.” Ribald jokes about sex and politics were certainly a far cry from the puerile exploits of Sally Field’s Sister Bertrille or the anti-feminist machinations of Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo, 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 by a nearly naked Judy Carne who would then be doused with a bucket of water. Who can forget when Richard Nixon himself appeared on the show just before the 1968 presidential election saying “Sock it to ME??” Hubert Humphrey was invited on the show as well but declined. Schlatter said he heard Humphrey say later that this might have cost him the election.
So many great people got their big break on “Laugh-In.” This is where Lily Tomlin first did her little girl character Edith Ann (“…and that’s the truth **raspberry**!”) and busybody telephone operator Ernestine (“One ringy-dingy…two ringy dingies…a gracious good afternoon, have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?”). Arte Johnson perfected his Nazi soldier and the 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 number called “Keep a-Goin” that Gibson would later turn into a country/western tune for Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” Other regulars included Alan Sues whose “sissy” characters always made the NBC censors nervous, Gary Owens as an old-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 Goldie Hawn was perfect as the bubbling airhead who kept forgetting her lines. I’m still 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 one time or another. Old-timers such as John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, and Mickey Rooney appeared alongside younger guest stars such as falsetto singing sensation Tiny Tim, Flip Wilson, Cher, and Charo. Where else on TV could you see combinations such as Beatle Ringo Starr interacting with Carol Channing?
The comedy on “Laugh-In” was often groan-worthy, but it was so fast-paced it never seemed to matter. Here are two typical lines from the show:
“If Queen Elizabeth married Steve McQueen, she’d be Queen McQueen.”
“The Republicans have a good chance this year, but they’ll probably spoil it by nominating somebody.”
George Schlatter had more guts than producers do today. When NBC made the decision to move “Laugh-In” from Monday nights at 8 to Friday nights at 10, Schlatter publicly denounced the network in the press. “It’s the single most stupid thing they could do,” he told a reporter. “They’re jerks. I don’t program, I produce. But I can’t see moving a show that has changed the whole viewing pattern. We’re getting people who were bored with TV…college kids get together and watch, a five-year-old can watch with his grandfather because there’s something that will appeal to any age.” In the end, Schlatter got his way and the NBC left the show where it was.
Needless to say, the show constantly gave the NBC censors fits. 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 late.
At rehearsals NBC has a censor all the time (his name is Sandy Cummings) who ostensibly rides herd on the writers and Rowan and Martin. He kills some lines; others are killed upstairs where Sandy’s bosses work.
Several minutes were cut from two consecutive shows in March 1968. First several references to LBJ after he made his decision not to run for President, and the next week just after the assassination of Martin Luther King, 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 were stripped out of most variety shows by the skittish producers, often replaced by lily white stars such as Connie Stevens or the Lennon Sisters. Yes, what a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King—remove all African-Americans from the airwaves!
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were the perfect hosts for all this chaos and anarchy. “We designed it so that we are two relatively normal guys wandering through a sea of madness,” Martin said. Rowan died in 1987 at the age of 65 and Dick died yesterday just after 6:00 pm at the age of 86. I’ve never seen performers before or since having so much visible fun on a set. Many mistakes made it onto the show but some appeared only in blooper reels:
Say good night, Dick.