“Laugh-In” did more than sock it to a generation of viewers.
The show broached subjects TV executives avoided in the late ’60s. Networks weren’t keen on discussing race relations, foreign policy or other hot button issues of the age. It didn’t matter that each was on the tip of so many Americans’ tongues.
“Laugh-In” made them all funny … while reducing us to puddles of laughter.
Now, Netflix is pretending today’s satirists are under similar fire. There’s a kernel of truth to the streaming giant’s pose, but not in the way it thinks.
“Still Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate” honors the show’s enduring legacy. Surviving players like Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin and Jo Anne Worley join modern comics in a mashup of new and classic “Laugh-In” bits.
Hosts Neil Patrick Harris and Tiffany Haddish introduce comedy sketches and monologues by comedians connecting to the show’s cultural impact.
First, a little history is in order.
Television in the “Laugh-In” days looked very different than it does today. Programs avoided pointed political gags, leaning more on flying nuns and shipwrecked millionaires to make us smile.
Remember, William Shatner kissing Nichelle Nichols on “Star Trek” marked the first interracial buss in TV history -- in 1968, mind you. “Laugh-In” kept the network censors hopping, but the show thrived despite a constantly evolving cast. A similar show from the era suffered a worse fate.
CBS’s “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” lasted three tumultuous seasons. The liberal duo fought the network suits every step of the way.
… and in the middle of the Smothers Brothers’ battles with the CBS censors, George Harrison showed up in 1968 as a surprise guest to offer moral support. “Whether you can say it or not,” Harrison urged them on the air, “keep trying to say it.” And they did. First, individual words and phrases that CBS found objectionable were cut from skits after rehearsals or edited out of the final master tape. Then entire segments were cut because of their political, social, or anti-establishment messages.
The show got canned. The duo sued the network for what it claimed was an unfair dismissal, and won.
“Laugh-In” avoided much of that fight, partly by delivering jokes with a goofy grin (and bikini-clad damsels like Judy Carne).
“Still Laugh-In” embraces late night TV’s fury without the giddy sense of joy. That means the reunion special ignores liberal targets and bashes President Donald Trump.
Billy Crystal’s “Still Laugh-In” limp monologue is just one of many examples. Bill Maher drops by, briefly, to curse out Trump while handing him the show’s Fickle Finger of Fate dishonor.
The original “Laugh-In” leaned left, too, without the spittle-flecked rage Maher and his ilk employ now. You could watch, no matter your ideology, and not walk away insulted. George Schlatter, creator of “Laugh-In,” was and still is a liberal. He cared about the laughs as well as the message.
The special betrays that spirit.
Can you imagine “Saturday Night Live” or Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” inviting Trump on now to spout the catch phrase du jour, like “Sock it to me?”
It’s exactly what “Laugh-In” did with Richard M. Nixon … because it was funny. The appearance helped redefine Nixon’s stuffy image, with some speculating it helped him with the White House.
The special showed hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin mocking the Soviet Union for their freedom-snuffing ways. It’s the kind of gag missing from today’s political comedy. How many times has Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel mocked the totalitarian leaders of Cuba, Iran or Venezuela? They only smite Russia when they think they can tie the nation to Trump’s election victory.
The reunion special’s low point comes when Kenya Barris hits the stage.
Who? He’s the creator of “Black-ish” who recently ditched ABC for Netflix.
“If this show was on today, every one of the writers and producers would be doing three to five in Pelican Bay,” Barris says at the start. To the Left, President Trump routinely throws reporters and political comics in jail.
In reality, Trump occasionally mocks comedians on Twitter. That’s it. It’s a far cry from being thrown in the brig.
FAST FACT: Goldie Hawn does not appear on “Still Laugh-In.” She’s arguably the show’s most famous alum, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1969’s “Cactus Flower.” Ironically, Hawn didn’t accept her Oscar in person.
“it’s not so easy being funny nowadays,” Barris continues. “Today as a comedy writer I feel more than ever comedy is under attack. The brilliant voices of Norman Lear, my brother, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and of course ‘Laugh-In’ would have a hard place in the world today, and that’s disheartening.”
Is he serious?
“Saturday Night Live” airs every week. The mainstream press regurgitates the show’s political sketches as if each deserves “breaking news” status. NBC doesn’t punish the show for its material, nor does anyone in the Oval Office.
Barris is partially right, though, when he says comedy is under attack. It’s the PC scolds who tell us what we can laugh about now. Hard Leftists demand Apology Tours for saying the “wrong” jokes. It’s the TV executive’s own party, his own ideology, wielding the pitchforks now.
How he ignores that fact is hard to fathom. You’d think a modern “Laugh-In” show would mock that very trend.
The modern conservative sticks up for Louis C.K. when he tells a dangerous joke about the Covington High School activists. It’s the modern left, like Judd Apatow, who says he can’t tell those jokes. Comic actors like Jonah Hill now apologize for jokes they uttered on screen.
Barris isn’t done.
He name checks Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor as comedy giants who spoke truth to power. He’s ignoring the fact that some, if not all, of these legends would be booted off campuses nationwide today for their material.
By his fellow Leftists.
“They said things we all were feeling but were afraid to say,” Barris says of that hallowed quartet. “And said them in a fearless way that not only made people laugh, it made them think.”
Today’s political humor reeks of “clapter,” jokes created to stimulate applause from like-minded audiences, not actual laughs. Plus, it’s often Trump who says things we’re thinking but are afraid to say, like “a nation without borders isn’t a nation.”
Barris also suggests police officers routinely kill innocent black men during his monologue. It’s a bald-faced lie the media has helped perpetuate but one denied by the facts.
The minute Netflix announced “Still Laugh-In” you knew it would be yet another vehicle to attack President Trump. What we couldn’t have predicted, though, was how the event would dishonestly pretend today’s liberal comics have anything to fear.
Colbert once joked that Trump fellated Vladmir Putin. Samantha Bee called the First Daughter a “feckless c-word.” Neither suffered an ounce of career blowback.
The uber-talented stars behind “Laugh-In” took real risks with their comedy 50 odd years ago. On that front, today’s liberal comics have nothing in common with them.