When “Laugh-In” debuted on NBC in 1967, creator George Schlatter could have very well gotten away with murder. The network didn’t often understand what the producer was trying to accomplish with his quick comedic snippets, his fresh-faced cast who often stumbled over their lines (which were sometimes purposely transposed on the teleprompter), or his ragtag group of oddball writers, which included a political science professor, a 16-year-old, and a young Lorne Michaels. But the Peacock was willing to experiment in order to sock it to CBS juggernaut “The Lucy Show” in the competing timeslot.
A year and a Richard Nixon appearance later, and “Laugh-In” became the place that every star and aspiring comedic yearned to be. From Orson Welles, Michael Cain and Kirk Douglas, to Cher and Flip Wilson, a wide-range of personalities popped up in various capacities, including in the famed Cocktail Parties or on the larger-than-life Joke Wall.
The original series, which ran from 1967 to 1973, is also responsible for making household names of stars like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, but today it’s applauded for tackling issues of the time that no one else talked about. Racism, gender politics, feminism and a republican president were just the beginning of what the show was willing to dive into. Despite that, Schlatter’s goal was never to make statements or drive opinion. The main goal was much simpler: to always make people feel good.
“Brevity allowed us to get by with a lot. Our survival was due in part to our speed, because we were on so many subjects and so quickly that before you got really upset by one joke we were on to the next,” Schlatter recalls. “But we were doing jokes on all sides. We did not have a political philosophy but we commented humorously and outrageously on all political philosophies. I was always proud of that. We made people nervous but we offended everyone equally.”
To celebrate the show’s 50th anniversary a bit belatedly, and to honor “Laugh-In’s” history of defining tropes and conventions, Netflix enlisted an exhaustive list of stars for “Still Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate.” The hour-long special, which filmed in front of an audience of 3,000 at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre last March, features Neil Patrick Harris and Tiffany Haddish as emcees, with Rita Moreno, Rita Wilson, Tony Hale, Natasha Leggero, Jay Leno, Rob Riggle, Jon Lovitz, Taye Diggs, Ron Funches and a slew of others popping up over the course of the night.
Original series stars Tomlin, Jo Anne Worley and Ruth Buzzi also appear to reprise former characters and pay special tribute to Schlatter, who was in the audience alongside Norman Lear. (Hawn was unable to attend the taping.)
In a true homage and much like the genre-defying series it celebrates, “Still Laugh-In” bends the conventional reunion or anniversary special by mixing surprisingly relevant clips (fake news, the legalization of marijuana) with present-day sketches and performances, a narrative that culminates in a fast-paced, loose production that looks and feels much like the original. Considering the entire cast only assembled a couple of hours before filming and there was no real rehearsal, it’s hard to imagine the show going any other way.
“I really wanted to make a statement and break the rules and do something that had not been done,” says executive producer Dave Broome. “That’s what ‘Laugh-In’ was. We owned the bloopers and the mistakes. All the mishap played out. You see the gap of production. I could have pulled all that out and made it a really tight show but that’s not the fun of what the show really did or what I wanted to accomplish.”
Broome also made it a point not to rely too heavily on clips of the original show but instead to blend classic moments with “some of the best comics today” delivering original material.
“Somehow it just seemed perfectly reasonable to be doing a show from 50 years ago and basically in a very close reincarnation to the original,” Tomlin says. “I was worried we wouldn’t get enough of the old kids back but I thought the whole thing was spectacular. I could not believe how well it went, and mixing the old footage with the new was just seamless.”
Tomlin, in particular, was passionate about bringing her character Edith Ann up-to-date, which she did when she reprised her for this special. But she also acknowledges that she couldn’t leave out Ernestine or “they would meet me in the parking lot.”
How well the old clips hold up today is partly why Broome believes he was able to launch this hybrid — although he admits a lot of the old footage shown involves commentary that people can no longer get away with on television. In that vein he chose not to compete with the new sketches but to let the old bits speak for themselves as they relate to current issues, and he selected appropriate people to give a set-up where needed. For example, Michael Douglas tells the story of how he convinced his father Kirk Douglas to do the show, and “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris introduces a clip package about tackling tough issues with a self-written (and unedited) speech about the censorship he experienced at ABC.
“Strangely enough, the world hasn’t changed that much. When you look at the anniversary show, these are exactly the same issues that we were dealing with in 1969,” Schlatter says. “An unpopular war, an unpopular president, abortion, marriage, gay marriage, it’s all of the same issues. We haven’t solved anything!”
Broome and Schlatter admit it probably wouldn’t be a true celebration of “Laugh-In” without addressing the current presidency, and Tomlin is one of several stars to crack Donald Trump jokes. But unlike the original, which welcomed politicians onto the show, Broome’s overall strategy was to leave the politicians out of it and to let the jokes come from performers where it made sense, such as Bill Maher, who gives Trump the “Fickle Finger of Fate.”
“We know those guys are going to go there, and we tried to find humor in other topics in other places. We weren’t trying to make any political statements,” Broome says. “It would have been pretty spectacular to have Barack Obama give Donald Trump the Fickle Finger, but we didn’t even make that ask. We also didn’t ask President Trump.”
The reason Broome says he didn’t want to spend too much time on specific politicians was because of the wider berth of issues about which to make statement. Citing the original series, Broome notes, “They were making statements about women, and they were making statements about racism and sexual orientation and things like that,” and that was the pattern he wanted the special to follow, too.
Adds Tomlin, “We called attention to the frailties and the problems of society and certain people stood out. Ronald Reagan was the governor of California at the time and we had some fun with him, but our show didn’t depend on focusing on Reagan as any kind of object that was irreplaceable.”
Speaking of irreplaceable, when Tomlin was filming the special she felt as though “Laugh-In” was potentially being groomed for a comeback or revival. But while Broome says he could see the team working on a version of the show, today’s TV standards and the number of issues that have become taboo to talk about mean that “Laugh-In” in the spirit that it was originally presented could never exist today.
“I cannot see that show,” he says. “There’s no way that show could be done with the way the humor was done then, today.”
“Still Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate” streams May 14 on Netflix.