By Randal C. Hill
“Sock it to me!”
“Here come de judge!”
“You bet your sweet bippy!”
“Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!”
At one time, it was virtually impossible to get through a day without hearing a few of these silly statements thanks to the astounding success and widespread influence of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Just called Laugh-In by most viewers, the show premiered as a groundbreaking NBC-TV special in September 1967. It proved to be such a surprise ratings-hit that NBC added it to their regular weekly schedule beginning the following January. “At the time, nobody was doing pure comedy,” reflected creator George Schlatter. “All variety shows were the same. I wanted something that reflected my own minimal attention span and love of comedy.”
Laugh-In was basically an hour of modern-age vaudeville. Viewers were witness to cockeyed sight gags, irreverent one-liners, off-color sketches, social issue playlets and absurdly satirical newscasts. Performers fell through trap doors, tipped over on tricycles, and endured buckets of water and cream pies in the face. Fleeting celebrity cameo appearances featured such disparate stars as ukulele maven Tiny Tim, movie icon John Wayne and straight-arrow politician Richard “Sock it to Me?” Nixon.
Everything flashed by at a furious pace, with one clever critic declaring the Monday night bash “like an ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ on an LSD trip.”
Laugh-In was hosted by urbane straight man Dan Rowan, with (supposedly) dim Dick Martin as his foil. The pair had knocked around for years in Las Vegas with limited success. Laugh-In portrayed them as hosts who often appeared to be befuddled by the wacky events swirling around them — high-octane go-go dancers, an ongoing cocktail party, an end-of-the-show joke wall.
A vast repertoire of celebrities also emerged from the show, including Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley, Flip Wilson, Judy Carne, Alan Sues, and Gary Owens. Rising above all these temporary stars, though, were two women who would go on to entertainment renown.
Perky Goldie Hawn found fame as a bumbling, giggling, bikini-clad blonde babe with silly sayings painted on her skin.
Lily Tomlin’s star turn came as Ernestine, a sardonic telephone operator who immortalized such lines as “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?”
Although Laugh-In loped along until 1973, the show had been on life support since the end of the 1960s. But NBC would soon return to the satire game, thanks to a former Laugh-In writer, Lorne Michaels, who created Saturday Night Live for a welcoming mid-1970s Laugh-In audience.
When asked about his show’s legacy, Schlatter replied, “Break the rules. Once something becomes a rule, it’s made to be broken.”