Laugh-In: ‘60s Psychedelic Comedy on DVD

Jun. 21, 2017
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Some think edgy television began with “The Sopranos.” Older viewers will insist that comedy led the way over drama—just think how provocative “Saturday Night Live” seemed in 1975 or “All in the Family” when it debuted in 1971. Fewer people remember that a few years earlier, comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin dared network censors to shut them down with “Laugh-In,” a variety show that scrambled the way variety shows were assembled and presented.

OK, maybe Ernie Kovacs had already gone there in the 1950s, but by the time “Laugh-In” premiered in 1968, the world was itself being scrambled by social, racial, political and cultural rebellions. “Laugh-In” caught the vibe of a tumultuous time. Even its name was a nod to the upheaval of hippie “love-ins” and “be-ins.”

“Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series” is out in a party-colored box containing all 140 episodes plus the 1967 pilot and other bonuses on 38 DVDs. Most had never been released on VHS or any format.

The program’s format subverted the familiar conventions of TV variety shows. Rowan and Martin strode out in tuxes and bowties onto a stage painted in psychedelic whimsy. Like Abbot and Costello or Martin and Lewis, Rowan played straight man while Martin was always two measures behind the beat—yet there was also something in Rowan’s ironic smile that foretold David Letterman. With its fake newscasts and send-ups of contemporary events, “Laugh-In” was also the predecessor to SNL.

“Laugh-In” was determined to bust the structure of the era’s programming. In episode one, mellifluous announcer Gary Owens intoned that the show was “brought to you by our good friends…” Long wait before cutting to next scene: perhaps TV shows really have no friends? Although Rowan smoked on screen, “Laugh-In” ran a skit with cast dressed as doctors and nurses in a song-and-dance routine called “A Salute to Smoking.” The lyrics mocked the cigarette industry and insisted on the health benefits of tobacco. Surely the Marlboro Man was offended and threatened to cancel his ads.

“Laugh-In” became a proving ground for a rising generation of talent including Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin a Ruth Buzzi. Incredibly, given its anti-Establishment stance, it managed to draw Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley as guest stars. “Laugh-In” was pointedly irreverent—to everyone: “The Society for the Advancement of Atheism will meet this Thursday, God willing,” ran one gag.


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