Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In 25th Anniversary,” which aired last February with good ratings, proved there was more to be mined with a Christmas spec. With clips from 1968, 1969 and 1970 telecasts and outtakes, producers Maria S. Schlatter and Donn Hoyer’s compilation begins to show the strain, though nostalgists will slap their thighs. The material’s still sharp even if the seams show.
Topical references, of course, suffer, but the sight gags are still amusing. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin are dandy, sketches and blackouts are sparkling, the writing is sassy. Catch phrases were inventive, celeb cameos still surprise. The pacing, helped by TV technical advances of the day, still plays with vim. The irreverent clowning, making a monkey out of the period’s sacred cows, razzes politics and stuffed shirts.
When the series originally played, it became popular enough to beat out “Gunsmoke” and “Lucy” in the ratings. Editing on this edition may occasionally be ragged, but the blackouts, the bright-colored sets, the musical shenanigans and the burlesque-tinged gags still glitter. Brevity was acknowledged as the soul of wit, so the segments are quick and well-timed.
Aside from top writing and on-the-set improvisation, the program depends on its stellar cast of then mostly unknowns: Ruth Buzzi, Judy Carne, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley, Chelsea Brown, Dennis Allen, Alan Sues, Dave Madden, Teresa Graves, Lily Tomlin, Johnny Brown. And mainstay Gary Owens who, with hand cupped around his ear, speaks out again in mock announcer-style tones.
George Schlatter’s rounded up the best Christmas hoopla from the shows, and includes Phil Silvers slapping around Dennis Allen with a plank, Jack Benny refusing to finish a gag, Flip Wilson’s weather report, Jack Lemmon’s assessment (“It’s national group therapy!”), Kate Smith busting the moon with her high note , Worley crashing through “I Got Rhythm.”
Series began as a special Sept. 9, 1967, and moved into a series Jan. 22, 1968, till May 14, 1973, and six monthly spex aired in 1977, when the last single pair of hands was heard applauding over the credits. A Valentine’s Day telecast is slated this coming year, and the future, as the cast might shout, lies ahead.
If the jokes seem paler, the themes at times silly, it goes with the resurrection territory; but Hawn’s giggling bimbo, Tomlin’s telephone lady, Arte Johnson’s German soldier murmuring “Verrrry interesting!” and Ruth Buzzi’s snooded old maid remain artful contributions to the world of comedy.
As for straight man Rowan, who died in 1987, and slightly wacky partner Dick Martin, they set the tone and shepherd the happy madness. They represent the only stability, if it can be called that, in chaotic Laugh-Insville.