Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rant #458: Laugh-In: You Bet Your Sweet Bippy!

On my local PBS station the other night was a special during Pledge Week that I had been looking forward to for some time after hearing about it a few months ago.

PBS's look at "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" was only slightly more than an hour long (due to pledge breaks), but I think it got the essence of this classic show--and you can look that up in your Funk and Wagnals!

I used to laugh, laugh, and laugh some more when "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" came on the air for its six year run on NBC, every Saturday night in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The show was groundbreaking. Usually, variety shows went at the pace of a turtle, but "Laugh-In" was different--very different.

Jokes were rapid-fire, and just when you got done laughing at one joke, another came on, and another, and another. There were regular bits: The Party, the Farkle Family, Laugh-In Looks at the News, and, of course, the Joke Wall, but most bits lasted little more than a few seconds.

The show was tied together by its hosts, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. Rowan and Martin were veteran Las Vegas entertainers who dabbled in both the movies and TV with varying degrees of success. They had made an OK movie, "Once Upon a Horse," which featured an un-named and then very unknown Mary Tyler Moore as one of the dancers in the film. Dick Martin had appeared semi-regularly as the next door neighbor of Lucy on "The Lucy Show." But generally, they weren't that well known outside of Las Vegas.

With producer George Schlatter at the helm, NBC ordered a special from Schlatter starring the duo. The show also featured a pretty much non-descript cast of players who also had had some minor successes in the entertainment field, including Arte Johnson, Joanne Worley, Judy Carne, Ruth Buzzi (she had been seen from time to time as Marlo Thomas's friend on "That Girl") and Alan Seus. All had been around for years, but had never broken through. They probably took this show as a lark.

But little did anyone know that this lark would turn to gold.

The special clicked with audiences, and a series was ordered.

Running during its first season after the equally groundbreaking "The Monkees," "Laugh-In" became the No. 1 show in the country, and stayed there for two or three years.

The cast, which also included Goldie Hawn and Henry Gibson, became megastars overnight.

And who can forget the debut of Tiny Tim?

Everyone wanted to be on this show, and such mega-stars as Sammy Davis Jr., John Wayne, and yes, even Richard Nixon made cameo appearances on the show.

The program ran afoul of the censors during its period on the air, but clever writing often was over the heads of those on the panic button. Alan Seus' wonderful performance as the slightly queer sports reporter was certainly a regular spot which went over their heads, as was the word "bippy," a word planted by the writers (including Coslough Johnson and Jeremy Lloyd) to throw off the censors. The censors thought bippy was something dirty (it wasn't), but they couldn't pull it because they couldn't find any evidence that it was something obscene.

They spent so much time looking for "bippy" dirt that a lot of stuff was left in that they missed.

What they did leave in included girls dressed in bikinis with sayings painted all over their bodies. You couldn't quite read some of those sayings with all the dancing about, but let me tell you, they missed plenty!

And you had oldtime black comedian Pigmeat Markham reaching new heights of popularity with white audiences with the "Hear Come the Judge" blackouts, which I don't think the censors really got as much as the public did.

But what you did get was a "Potpourri" of impressive talents. You literally saw the creation of several enduring stars taking their first babysteps, including Hawn and Lily Tomlin.

And you also had the foundation of "Saturday Night Live," as Lorne Michaels was one of the later writers on the show. He has said that "Saturday Night Live" is a combination of "Laugh-In" and "The Monkees," and I think he is correct.

Anyway, the show had its run, had a few spinoffs ("Letters to Laugh-In" and the later "Rowan and Martin Report"), several records (beyond Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," there was Shorty Long's "Here Comes the Judge" and many others by cast members and other acts), and several imitators ("Turn On," one of the all-time TV bombs).

In the mid 1970s, the show resurfaced, without Rowan and Martin or such a talented cast, but it did launch the career of Robin Williams.

So it was fun seeing "Laugh-In" again this weekend. Sure, as an 11 year old, I am sure some of the jokes on the show went way over my head, but looking back, I think I got more than I missed.

What a great show! There will never be another like it.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, don't forget their movie "The Maltese Bippie". Kind of like Rowan and Martin meet Humphrey Bogart. Silly and off the wall.



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