Looking Back at Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In

This week I’m taking a look at another show which predates modern sketch comedy in a number of ways but nonetheless serves an important step in the development of the craft. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In featured numerous stars that would later go on to grater success, such as Goldie Hawn, Lilly Tomlin and a Canadian writer by the name of Lorne Michaels. Additionally it made a clear, unapologetic break with traditional forms of comedy which had its roots in the theatre and vaudeville.

Laugh-in feels like the polar opposite of the last show I looked at, The Carol Burnett Show. While Burnett’s program was slow and deliberate, Laugh-In feels fast and random, even by today’s standards. Rather than 10 to 15 minute sketches that seem to run on forever, Laugh-In is mostly quick bits which rarely last more than 30 seconds. Although there are some more traditional sketches that last two or three minutes, Laugh-In mostly features one-liners, simple jokes told between two characters and lots of puns. These are delivered in at a rapid, almost frantic pace that must have been disorienting at the time of the show’s run, from 1968-1973.

If you’re someone who can’t stand puns you should probably stay away from Laugh-In, as roughly 75% of its jokes are puns. (My favorite from the show: “What’s all this concern about capital punishment? I think everyone in the capital should be punished.”) Even though I consider myself a fan, I have to admit most aren’t that great. But because so many of them are coming at you one after another it’s hard to get too upset about any one being a dud. Another trademark is how relentlessly topical most of the jokes are. Although I still understand jokes about burning draft cards, they don’t really have the same punch today as when they first aired. That being said, the show also deserves credit for its innovative fake news segments. These jokes still stick to the quick, punny nature of everything on the show, but it helped pave the way for later comedy like SNL’s Weekend Update and the Daily Show.

The other main feature of the show is physical comedy. Frequently this takes the form of various actors being hit over the head by someone else after delivering a particularly groan-inducing pun. Each show would also feature a series of reoccurring physical bits, in which various physical calamities would result from repeated attempts by someone to do something simple, like open a door or chop down a tree. Most famously though there were the sock-it-to-me routines, in which actors would be tricked into saying the phrase (“It may be rice wine to you, but it’s still sake to me”), and met with a smack on the head, a splash of water, or a fall through a trap door.

Although some aspects of the show seem tame today, overall Laugh-In seems remarkably innovative in a number of ways and it’s easy to see how shocking to show was probably to audiences when it was on. Not only were the jokes frequently risqué and political for the time, the show also regularly featured bikini clad models both black and white. It seems very clear that Laugh-In was making a deliberate attempt to move away from older, slower-paced comedy shows. When comedy star of ‘50s television Jack Benny guest stars, he’s constantly interrupted in the middle of jokes and told to speed it up. Although it’s played for laughs, this running gag clearly had quite a bit of truth to it. Like numerous other movies and TV shows from the late ‘60s Laugh-In was clearly targeted at a youthful, intelligent audience, something that until that time had never been done.

“This isn’t a show, it’s national group therapy” says Jack Lemmon while guest starring during an episode. He’s not entirely wrong. The show’s simple, topical humor probably provided a much needed outlet for a nation going through an incredibly tremulous time. 1968, the year the show began, would see the Vietnam War escalate to new heights, the assassination of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; having something that wasted as little time as possible getting to the punch line was probably greatly appreciated. Overall, today the show feels very much a product of its time. It was clearly a time of transition for not just comedy but the nation as a whole. Shows like this one, as good comedy often does, made tough times much easier to stomach.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

Looking Back at Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In