I often think of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, hosts of the groundbreaking television show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1973), as the Last Comedy Team.
There are others to vie for the title, most plausibly Allen & Rossi and the Smothers Brothers. Both of those acts have (or had) periodically reunited after Rowan and Martin split in 1973. But even so, Rowan and Martin had something very old school about them. Allen and Rossi were very much in the mold of Martin & Lewis –– very post-Rat Pack. The Smothers Brothers were a new generation, the folk and hippie era. But Rowan and Martin’s material was VERY vaudeville. In fact, I think of Dick Martin as a male Dumb Dora act, his character is a LOT like Gracie Allen’s. His lapses of logic are so crazy that no one in real life would ever have them; they could only ever occur in the context of jokes and comedy routines. Teamed with the excellent straight man Dan Rowan they formed an a night club act in 1952, gradually working their way into television in the 1960s.
Their smash break-through (really all they are known for, and that’s OK because it’s one of the most successful tv shows of all time, defining an entire era) was Laugh-In. The show grew out of their successful stint subbing for Dean Martin in 1966. They premiered their own show as a special in 1967; it launched as a regular series in 1968. The show was like an explosion of color and sound, rapid-fire jokes and editing (with some of the comedy bits lasting no longer than a second), reflecting changing sexual attitudes, mores, and clothing and dance styles. One of its producers, George Schlatter, had cut his teeth working for Ernie Kovacs. One of its key writers Lorne Michaels, would go on to create and produce Saturday Night Live.
Of the cast members, Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin would go on to the biggest careers; Richard Dawson (formerly of Hogan’s Heroes) would work steadily for many years as the host of Family Feud, and many of the others would just kind of coast for decades on the momentum of the glory days (which were glorious indeed), including Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Judy Carne, Ruth Buzzi, etc. Some, like Jo Anne Worley, Alan Sues and Dennis Allen were just too strange and weird to be able to survive outside the context of Laugh-In; they were fish and Laugh-In was their aquarium. Others of note were Larry Hovis (also of Hogan’s Heroes), Dave Madden (also of The Partridge Family), Johnny Brown (later to play Bookman on Good Times), as well as Jeremy Lloyd, Teresa Graves, Chelsea Brown, Patti Deutsch and ventriloquist Willie Tyler (and Lester). And this is only some of them. Gary Owens was the announcer, which he did as though the program were a 1940s radio show.
Rowan and Martin themselves set a swinging tone for the show…they seemed sort of like versions of Hugh Hefner, wearing a couple of tuxedos, making lots of lecherous sex jokes and lewd double entendres, and presiding over a format that was presented like a big party (one of the most frequent recurring set pieces was in fact a big cocktail party) and lots of go-go dancing. The music was psychedelic rock-oriented, and plenty of bits, like Arte Johnson’s “Veddy interesting” , Judy Carne’s “Sock it to me!” and Lily Tomlin’s “Thath the truth” became hip national catchphrases.
Laugh-In was one of the first prime time shows I watched regularly and enjoyed so it’s impossible me for not to love it. Still, in the scheme of things, there’s an element of treachery afoot. It seems quite clear in retrospect that Laugh-In (along with the show that followed in its footsteps SNL) are what killed old school TV variety in the vaudeville mold like Ed Sullivan (Sullivan went off the air in 1971. Coincidence? I don’t think so). Laugh-In was so innovative that it made shows in the traditional format look flat by comparison. This is ironic because it was a different kind of show, a comedy revue, not a variety show, properly speaking. But still there was so much going on for the eye and ear on Laugh-In, that it pretty much changed how tv viewers were hard-wired. Even I will admit that watching a straight up variety show like Sullivan for the modern viewer can be a hard slog. Sitting there watching a plate spinner for ten minutes? It’s practically like sitting in church!
Even more ironically, Laugh-In’s format died out as well. In the wake of its success, certain shows, notably the Flip Wilson show and Hee Haw followed its hyperactive format. But with Saturday Night Live, things mellowed back out somewhat. The sixties were over. There really hasn’t been anything quite as crazy as Laugh-In on television screens in nearly 40 years.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.