Watching season one of the iconic '60s comedy reminds us what's missing from modern satire.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.