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The 1 Way ‘Laugh-In’ Crushes Today’s Political Humor

Suffice to say “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” would be problematic today.

The kitchen sink comedy never held back on a joke. Politics. Religion. Sex. The merry pranksters summoned as many bits as the network would allow under 60 minutes. They couldn’t curse or show too much bare skin. Everything else was fair game.

The show’s signature bikini girls alone might fuel an angry hashtag campaign.

That’s no reason to avoid “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete First Season (4DVD)” featuring 14 remastered episodes from the Emmy-winning series. In fact, seeing comedy without a net these days is downright refreshing.

The NBC comedy brought a cavalcade of cutups into our living rooms. Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley. Ruth Buzzi. Henry Gibson. Alan Sues. The show ran from 1968 to 1973 with a constantly revolving cast of clowns. Some faded from the pop culture radar. Others, like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, never left.

Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In: Sock It To Me

Comedy often ages poorly. Check out some standup from the ‘70s and you’ll understand. The references. The fashions. The funny beats that grow moldy over time. And, conversely, today’s knee-slappers might shock our grandparents.

The same can be said with “Laugh In,” which never met a corny gag it didn’t kiss full on the lips. They threw joke after joke at us long before the yuksters behind “Airplane!” made that technique hip. And any comedy show stretched to an hour will inevitably have some fat to be trimmed away.

That hardly erodes the show’s charm.

RELATED: Louis CK: Political Celebrities Are Obnoxious

Rowan and Martin had terrific comic chemistry, a fact undiminished with time. That rapport grew from their earlier days as a comedy duo. It let the show start with a steady hand amidst the mayhem.

Is there a better word to describe that “Laugh-In” style than “mayhem?” Hate one joke? Don’t worry. About twenty more are on the way.

Each week the hosts barely held each episode together, no small feat given the comedy extremes on display.

Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In: Goldie Hawn Explains Lending Law

That was part of “Laugh-In’s” appeal then … and now. Rowan and Martin might wince at a joke before we ever could. Or they might laugh before arriving at the punch line. It was all a gag, a put on. Their attitude never let you forget it.

“That was dumb,” Tommy Smothers says out of the blue during episode two. Sure, it was. It might get even dumber soon enough. You’ll laugh despite yourself.

The frantic editing sure helped. The show careened from “sock it to me” shtick to “Monkees” esque videos with no warning.

No filters. No cares. No attitude. What’s the most refreshing element of the show as seen from a 21st century lens?

No hate.

The cast delivered every barb with a grin, not a clenched fist.Click To Tweet

Compare that to today’s late night comedians and “Saturday Night Live” cast. They practically ooze with disdain for their targets. Sometimes the jokes give way to pure hatred, unleavened by wit or perspective.

Not “Laugh-In.”

Sure, Calif. Gov. Ronald Reagan withstood a jab or three in the show’s first season. The show hailed from Burbank, mind you, and local politicians were fair game. The cast delivered every barb with a grin, not a clenched fist.

You can imagine Gov. Reagan laughing every time his name got mentioned.

They even invited presidential candidate Richard Nixon to croak, “Sock it to me.” Imagine today’s comedians offering up something similarly goofy to Donald Trump during the heat of the election cycle?

The ’60s roiled with culture wars far greater than today’s battles over micro-aggressions and safe spaces. The “Laugh-In” troupe didn’t look down on their audiences like many stars do today.

arte johnson laugh in german soldier
Arte Johnson’s German soldier cropped up repeatedly on ‘Laugh-In.’

That doesn’t mean the show lacked bite. Consider a micro sketch with black comic Flip Wilson auctioning off a southern white male. Or a fake sequel to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” where a crush of different ethnicities get a closeup.

What about guest star Terry-Thomas as Moses in a very ‘60s era protest?

Other recurring bits simply wouldn’t fly today. Remember Arte Johnson as a stereotypical Indian complete with dark skin makeup? And Rowan’s ever-present cigarette would get snuffed out before he stepped foot on the stage.

Second-hand smoke is no laughing matter.

“Laugh-In” reflected a progressive take on comedy that lapped one of its successors. While “Saturday Night Live” took years to shake its label as a male-centered show, “Laugh-In” gave plenty of screen time to Buzzi, Hawn and Worley.

Carne’s “sock it to me” routine and Hawn’s bikini gyrations gave the show its cheery face.

The era’s biggest stars happily joined in the fun. The first season alone featured John Wayne. Sally Field. Jerry Lewis. Milton Berle, Cher and Sammy Davis, Jr.

“Here come da judge,” indeed.

The signature “Laugh-In” news segment didn’t draw blood, either, even while it addressed the Vietnam War and other hot-button topics. It did set the stage for “SNL’s” Weekend Update segment a decade later.

“Laugh-In” may be hopelessly dated now. It still taught comics the benefits of humor with heart. It’s a lesson Colbert and co. should take to heart.


The new set includes hours of bonus footage including the pilot episode, a blooper reel, a 25th anniversary reunion and a new Interview with “Laugh-In” creator George Schlatter.

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18 Comments

  1. They weren’t conservative they were liberal but that liberal was a very different disposition than today’s “liberal” or more accurate, left-wing. Hollywood then, were in essence the opposite: open-minded and tolerant.

    1. Dittos. Back then, even most liberals were at least still patriotic. Today’s “mainstream” liberal celebrities as as left-wing as the ’60 extreme radicals were back then.

  2. “Imagine today’s comedians offering up something similarly goofy to Donald Trump during the heat of the election cycle?” There was Jimmy Fallon ruffling his hair… and boy oh boy did the comrades launch into Fallon for “humanizing” Trump.

  3. It was escape. That’s not easy to find nowadays. Hollywood, being Hollywood, is continually trying to send an “important” message, which of course most of us don’t want or need.

  4. Despite its desperate attempts to appeal to young people, Laugh-In was geared to my parents’ generation. I was 16 when it debuted, watched a few episodes and was bored to death by the fields of corn it served up.

    1. However, it was innovative for its time. Yes, it had some cornball stuff, but consider that the other channel carried “Hee-Haw.” The first couple of seasons of SNL are cornball by today’s standards.

      1. You can’t imagine how innovative SNL was compared to the Bob Hope/Laugh-In style of comedy that dominated skit TV at the time. The Laugh-In corn was the stuff that was old in my grandparents’ day.

        1. I am sorry you don’t get it. You don’t have to be ignorant about that by showing such disrespect for those of us who loved the show when it was on.

  5. The Halloween skit with the grave yard, and the head stone “Here lies Hanoi and lies and lies” Quick you could miss it. Please THINK about that for that time. A VERY conservative idea and joke, Would ANY comedy show today dare such a thing?

  6. I think Keenan Ivory Wayans’ In Living Color was the closest match to Laugh-In in that both are not hateful shows.

    In fact I would say In Living Color mirrors Laugh-In with it’s disrespectful attitude. Some might prefer “iconoclastic” to “disrespectful.” 🙂

  7. Flip Wilson was great too in a funny, loving show. He was what I think Will Rogers would have been like if Will was a minority discriminated against. Full of humor, self respect but lacking hate to those to dumb to love their brother in Christ.

  8. As far as I can tell Toto, you forgot the most unusual guest who appeared which was Richard Nixon.
    I loved this show, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Modern comics could learn a lot from them. Or even from the first 5 seasons of SNL. That was comedy at its finest.

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