Amélie’s Retro Hell

Three-Disc Set
Rhino Retro Vision

Leave it Rhino to capture the very essence of the LAUGH-IN experience by virtue of the packaging alone. Designed after the show’s signature Joke Wall (including punch-out doors that reveal cast pictures), the attractive CD set gooses the memory circuits at first sight. The collection does not disappoint, serving up six giddy hour-long episodes from 1968-1970 with splendiferous menu designs and exclusive interviews with cast members Gary Owens, Ruth Buzzi, and Arte Johnson.

LAUGH-IN was my family’s favorite show at the end of the 1960s (largely because we kids had to be in bed before STAR TREK came on). My McCarthy (as in Eugene) liberal parents reveled in the subversive political humor, while my sisters and I rejoiced in the silly recurring characters (Ruth Buzzi’s hostile spinster Gladys Ormphy, Arte Johnson’s elderly poster boy for Viagra Tyrone F. Horneigh, the Farkle Family, Sammy Davis Jr.’s Judge, Lily Tomlin’s ageless Ernestine the telephone operator (still a popular character in advertising and TV cameos nearly 35 years post LAUGH-IN), and just about anyone Flip Wilson played. The brainchild of producer George Schlatter, LAUGH-IN launched the careers of numerous comedic talents and added a number of catch-phrases (from “Sock it to me!” to “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall’s!”) to the pop culture dialogue.

With guest stars ranging from John Wayne to Liberace to Cher to Richard Nixon, the show zigzagged between established entertainers and promising newcomers rather like a manic Ed Sullivan show on speed. No better evidence of this exists than Episode #60, featuring the great Jack Benny. Watching Benny cut up with an uncontrollably giggly Goldie Hawn is akin to watching comedy’s torch pass from the old guard to the new. The guests themselves often proved to be seminal entertainment figures who would remain relevant over thirty years later-Cher, Michael Caine, Hugh Hefner, Jack Lemmon, James Garner. And who would have thought that Ralph Nader jokes circa 1968 would remain all-too-timely in election-year 2004?
A typical LAUGH-IN show, hosted by the droll comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, would feature one major guest star (a Jack Benny, Cher, Don Rickles), bolstered by cameo appearances by others (anyone from Tim Conway to Tiny Tim to Andy Williams to John Wayne), who would either show up as a guest in the weekly Cocktail Party sketch, stick his head through the Joke Wall at the end, or just drop in for a quick one-liner in between sketches. The Cocktail Party offered plenty of shimmy-shaking go-go girls while the cast members (Dick Martin usually trying to pick up the babes, Henry Gibson dressed as a priest) commented on current topics.

The ladies of the cast (usually Judy Carne, Goldie Hawn, Ruth Buzzi, and JoAnne Worley) would introduce the Laugh In Report (the precursor to SNL’s Weekend Update-do note that Lorne Michaels was one of LAUGH-IN’s staff writers) with a high-style song and dance number. Sammy Davis Jr. might pop up in robes and a powdered wig for the “Here Come The Judge” routine.

The show would cut away every 10 minutes or so to a silent routine with Tim Conway failing miserably at track and field or Dan Rowan trying to open a window that just won’t budge. Gary Owens would announce, “Meanwhile, back in Beautiful Downtown Burbank!” in that deliciously over-modulated announcer voice of his. Arte Johnson, master of the Eurotrash accent, would poke his WW2-helmeted head through some bushes and quip, “Verrrry interesting-but stupid!” Ditzy Alan Sues-always sporting scary, tight trousers in groovy stripes–would bungle a sports report. Henry Gibson would appear with a large daisy in his hand and recite some vaguely meaningful poetry (decades before Jack Handy ever had a deep thought). Future Partridge Family manager Dave Madden tossed confetti. JoAnne Worley (accompanied on piano by the great cabaret songwriter Billy Barnes) would crack a high note with her bombastic voice in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It was still better than the subsequent song stylings of Tiny Tim on his ukulele. The hip and beautiful Teresa Graves then gyrated in a bikini. Someone off stage would hit Judy Carne with a foam rubber hammer, pillow, or bucket of water every time she said, “Sock it to me” (now rather unfunny in light of the fact that she was a battered spouse in her private life). A mysterious figure in a yellow rain slicker (whose identity was never revealed, but I like to think it was Gary Owens) would ride a tricycle until he fell over. Tyrone would put the moves on Gladys and get whupped upside the head with her handbag. Then everyone would pop their heads out from the zany joke wall while the credits ran. Somehow, it was all very, very, VERY funny and remains so to this day.

George Schlatter’s wonderful liner notes (a booklet, actually) offer a fascinating look at the show’s attempts to offer political balance through its writers. LAUGH-IN had two head writers-riotous liberal Englishman Digby Wolfe from the series THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS and stalwart Republican Paul Keyes, who penned the racier gags on the old DEAN MARTIN SHOW. Wolfe favored an imaginative, anarchist’s approach to humor, while Keyes (a Nixon speechwriter who actually had an office in the White House) served up double-entendres only slightly tamer than the Playboy jokes page. As my ex-sweetheart, the ultra conservative Dr. Jan Libourel would say, Digby’s and Keyes’ philosophies of life were incompatible, but the dichotomy sure made for great comedy. Between the two of them, gags would show up (often in body paint on Goldie Hawn’s tummy) about abortion and the draft, and the wonderful Fickle Finger of Fate award (a gilded hand with the index finger-thank you-pointed skyward) poked fun at all sorts of government bungling.

LAUGH-IN’s ongoing influence on American culture can be measured in the sheer numbers of talents it launched. Writer Lorne Michaels created SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Goldie Hawn remains a popular leading actress in comedies. Few one-man shows can top Lily Tomlin’s incredible Broadway hit THE SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE. Tomlin, Hawn, Eileen Brennan, and Henry Gibson were all nominated for Academy Awards (Tomlin and Gibson for NASHVILLE, Brennan for PRIVATE BENJAMIN, and Hawn for PRIVATE BENJAMIN and for CACTUS FLOWER, which she won). More recently, Gibson delivered a particularly chilling performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA. Flip Wilson took cross-dressing to gut-splitting new heights with his mini-skirted character Geraldine and his series THE FLIP WILSON SHOW. Gary Owens was the voice of the original SPACE GHOST and can still be heard in radio commercials everywhere. Richard Dawson and Larry Hovis enjoy DVD immortality now that the entire run of HOGAN’S HEROES has been released. JoAnne Worley still performs live shows. Ruth Buzzi, when she isn’t catching record salmon in Alaska, has popped up in videos for Kinky Friedman and Weird Al Yankovic, along with her 30+-year stretch with SESAME STREET.

My only negative comment on the collection is purely cultural. It is painful to watch black comedian Pigmeat Markham (his name alone gives me the shudders) doing mostly minstrel-style shtick. At best, the jokes are cringe-inducing. To fully appreciate why this is painful, do check out Spike Lee’s BAMBOOZLED, especially the montage footage at the end. I don’t believe in any form of censorship, so I don’t have a problem with including this material in the collection. It is what it is, it was part of the show, and I think it’s good to watch Markham’s appearances just to see how far entertainment has come (and how far it still has to go, as Spike Lee shows us).

For fans of the show, or for those who need a good video capsule to get acquainted with the sixties and the origins of contemporary American political humor, THE BEST OF ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN is for you. My parents beamed from ear to ear when I brought this baby home, and you will, too. For my money, the funniest moment in the collection belongs to Dick Martin delivering the news while perched like Hugh Hefner on the front of his news desk, where he greets us with a chirpy, “Greetings, news buffs!”


– Dan Rowan’s friendship with mystery writer John D. Macdonald resulted in the book A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. Macdonald, 1967-1974.

– A devoted needlepoint artist, Arte Johnson (remember him as Renfield in LOVE AT FIRST BITE?) has a needlepoint stitch named in his honor-The Arte Johnson. He has narrated a number of books on tape, including Michael Moore’s STUPID WHITE MEN. He is currently being treated for cancer, so put some good thoughts out for him, eh?

– Teresa Graves, who received a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for her groundbreaking TV series GET CHRISTY LOVE!, succumbed during a fire in her South Los Angeles home-eerily in the same week that a Hollywood Hills fire took the life of DALLAS and DARK SHADOWS character actor Dennis Patrick.

– When Rowan and Martin (and Goldie’s torso) made the cover of TIME Magazine 10/11/68, the caricature illustration was rendered by none other than Gerald Scarfe, the genius behind Pink Floyd’s THE WALL.

– An anemic attempt to revive LAUGH-IN in 1979 failed rather dismally, which wound up being good news for unknown cast member Robin Williams, who then went on to star in MORK AND MINDY. His fellow LAUGH-IN ’79 refugees included Wayland Flowers and Madame and Sergio Aragones, the MAD Magazine illustrator whose unforgettable gag cartoons appeared in that magazine’s page margins.

– I am my kid’s dad: radio announcer Gary Owens is the son of radio talk show host Bill Balance. Bill Balance not only launched Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s career on the air, he had an affair with her, which resulted in those scandalous nude pix of Dr. Laura. When Dr. Laura became such an insufferable, sanctimonious scold, Balance publicly released the pictures. As Ralphie Wiggins would say, “Ha-HAH!”

– Dan Rowan passed away in 1987. Dick Martin became a successful TV director, helming such series as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and FAMILY TIES. He still pops up in guest acting stints

– Other series regulars of note: ventriloquist Willie Tyler (and Lester), singer Jud Strunk (Daisy A Day, anyone?), Partridge family manager Dave Madden, and deejay Dick Whittington.

– And speaking of MAD, LAUGH-IN actually ran its own MAD-style magazine for two years.

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