The single best thing that has happened since the disaster on Election Day might be that the Decades channel has started showing Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on weeknights. These are not the edited half-hours that played in syndication in the 90s, most famously on Nick at Nite; they’re full episodes, although some of the content is doubtlessly missing thanks to the commercial load Decades airs.
From its debut in January 1968 (after a one-shot special in the summer of 1967), Laugh-In got a reputation for being subversive. It really wasn’t, as Kliph Nesteroff documented years ago: “It effectively garnered a genuine hippie aesthetic, but any actual connection to the counterculture was mostly smoke and mirrors.” Head writer Paul Keyes had worked for Richard Nixon during the 1962 California governor’s race, and was on his payroll during the ’68 campaign. Once Nixon was elected, their relationship kept Laugh-In from suffering the same fate as the Smothers Brothers. (In early episodes, Dick Martin frequently jokes about stuff their show does, or doesn’t do, that the Smothers Brothers couldn’t do, or do.)
The topical humor of Laugh-In and the Smothers Brothers made the splash that it did because American network entertainment shows simply didn’t do much topical, political humor before then. Cop and doctor shows often told topical stories, although they frequently moralized about cultural rot and reinforced the values of the Greatest Generation. (Late 60s sitcoms and variety shows had precious little to do with real life at all.) When the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In joked about Lyndon Johnson, the military, sex, or the generation gap, they threw open a window that had previously been opened only a crack. But Laugh-In producer George Schlatter says Keyes used his influence in the writers’ room to keep the show from going too far left, and Dan Rowan himself was a Republican. Apart from casual references to getting high, Laugh-In‘s jokes were more likely to reinforce the Greatest Generation’s values than to criticize them (which is partly what got the Smothers Brothers canceled), but the show’s rapid-fire irreverence worked to hide it. Laugh-In‘s commitment to showbiz values of old is clear in Martin’s leering playboy schtick, which isn’t qualitatively different from what he might have done on a nightclub stage in 1958, and in the old-fashioned production numbers that were part of each week’s show.
Laugh-In looked to the future, however, with early music videos by groups including the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Bee Gees. It’s possible that there may have been more of these during the show’s original run than we’ll see today; this kind of thing is notoriously hard to clear for repeats, and such performances are often omitted from reruns and DVDs. Several musicians, including Ringo Starr and the Monkees, were guests on the show but didn’t sing.
Nixon is probably the single most famous guest (“sock it to me?”), and he is said to have believed his appearance helped him get elected president in 1968. (The producers offered equal time to Hubert Humphrey, but he turned them down, fearing harm to his dignity.) But the show also attracted showbiz royalty: Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Carol Channing, Michael Caine, and Milton Berle, among others. Sports figures such as Joe Namath, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain made cameos, too.
The biggest star to emerge from the regular Laugh-In cast, Goldie Hawn, is ridiculously fun to watch. She plays the perpetually confused ditz with a sly self-awareness I was too young to notice during the show’s network run, and I’m not sure I caught it when watching the 90s reruns, either. Longtime regulars Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson are pretty great, too. Buzzi is up for anything and usually kills when she does it. Johnson created a stable of memorable characters out of one-liners: the German soldier (“verrrry interestink”), the Russian Mr. Rosmenko, and Tyrone F. Horneigh, who unsuccessfully pursues Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby while possessing the best character name to ever get past the censor.
I have read articles recently suggesting that Laugh-In simply isn’t funny anymore. Some of it isn’t. By definition, topical humor has a short shelf-life—certainly not 50 years. But humor based on characters as indelible as Buzzi’s and Johnson’s, or the long parade of catch-phrases from “here come the judge” on down, can still get laughs today. From me, anyhow.