Back in June of last year, I did a post on the former site of the blog about Time Life’s bodacious DVD release of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to fans and collectors. It’s the complete series; all six seasons comprised of 140 telecasts (and the pilot) and the sweet thing is that if you’re unable to initially afford the entire set (let’s be honest—it’s got a hefty price tag, and if anyone reading Thrilling Days of Yesteryear were wealthy I would have married them by now) they’ve been releasing each season on an individual basis. I didn’t mention it at the time—I had planned to do a follow-up post…and then something suddenly came up—but my good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications was generous enough to send me the first season DVD…and the second season as well, which was dropped off by your friendly neighborhood online/brick-and-mortar merchants in January of 2018. I profusely apologize for taking so long to examining the contents of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Second Season but there are a limited number of hours in a day…and a goodly portion of that time is spent trying to keep my parents from killing one another.
In my June post, I observed “…if you look at the series through the prism as one of those classic television variety hours that they sadly don’t make any more, Laugh-In can be pretty amusing from time to time.” I stand by those remarks (though I do ask permission to revise and extend them without objection); Laugh-In is unavoidably dated in keeping with its era, but you can’t dismiss the comedic talent involved with the enterprise (even if some of the jokes seem to have been located in a trunk belonging to Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson) and I find that it’s those moments on the show that bring me the most pleasure. The second season saw the departure of cast regulars Eileen Brennan (who didn’t like the slapstick falls required of the show), Roddy Maude-Roxby (he returned to his side of the pond), and Larry Hovis (who went back to Hogan’s Heroes…but he would be back) and replaced them with some first-rate comedic presences.
The new cast member that had the most staying power on the show was Alan Sues, who stuck around for four seasons and created such memorable characters as the grinning, moronic sportscaster (“Big Al”) and my personal favorite, “Uncle Al, the Kiddie’s Pal”—the hungover kiddie show’s host. The campy Sues (described by writer Richard Warren Lewis as Laugh-In’s “resident pansy”) became known for catchphrases like “He pushed me…he pushed me!” and fittingly (because he had worked with her in the stage revue The Mad Show) donned drag to imitate fellow cast member Jo Anne Worley. In later seasons, Sues would later be the recipient of the water drenching that was originally the bailiwick of the show’s “Sock it to me” girl, Judy Carne (who left the series at the end of the season though she did make a handful appearances in the 1969-70 season).
I’ve joked on the blog in the past that Dave Madden’s “Reuben Kincaid”–the long-suffering manager he played on The Partridge Family—is one of my role models so I was naturally predisposed to love his short stint on Laugh-In, where he carved out a niche as the fish-out-of-water sad sack (he was the milk drinker in the “Party” segments) who tossed confetti as punchlines to jokes (the confetti represented naughty thoughts). Madden later described the experience: “I didn’t feel really needed there, and I wasn’t used enough. After a while, I felt my check ought to be gift-wrapped.” Laugh-In’s loss would be the Partridge Family’s gain, though Dave would later be a semi-regular on the sitcom Alice as one of the patrons of Mel’s Diner.
The show also added a little diversity to its cast by hiring model-dancer Chelsea Brown (whom we bid a fond farewell to in March last year), who had impressed producer George Schlatter by appearing in a “black Laugh-In” special he produced entitled Soul! Brown was pressed into service primarily because “Schlatter had certain racial jokes he wanted to use, but they could only be done by a black girl.” I won’t beat about the bush: many of those moments do not wear well (though I did chuckle at a blackout where Chelsea and Goldie Hawn are playing chess and when Goldie tells her “The game starts with the white men first” Brown retorts “That figures.”) but as the season rolled on Brown was allowed to do other things. (A Halloween-themed show features Chelsea and Dave Madden as a couple who receive a number of trick-or-treaters at their door delivering punchlines…and I thought the subtle subversiveness of an interracial couple was a nice touch; Brown was married to a white man in real life and whenever she was asked what it was like to live in a mixed marriage she would dismiss the questioner with “Oh, yeah, mixed—he’s a man and I’m a woman.”)
Laugh-In’s inaugural season featured a series of sketches with both Sammy Davis, Jr. and Roddy Maude-Roxby as courtroom judges, and these sequences were introduced with the catch phrase “Here comes de judge.” The African-American comic who originated that phrase, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, was brought aboard cast in the second season though his participation (possibly due to his age) was largely limited to the courtroom bits. (I like how Markham’s jurist would hit people over the head with a pig’s bladder—a callback to burlesque and the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” where Dewey made his fame alongside greats as Moms Mabley and Mantan Moreland.) Pigmeat stuck around long enough to see a novelty hit (“Here Comes the Judge”) based on his routine crack the Top Twenty of the pop charts; it was also the title of his autobiography, published in 1969.
The remaining additions to the cast in the sophomore season were Dick “Sweet Brother” Whittington, whose best-remembered character was that of an unreconstructed Confederate officer in the “Party” sketches and “the fun couple,” Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall. Brill and McCall were never able to make much of their material though I’ve always been a Mitzi fan; she was side-splittingly funny as Carol Leifer’s mom on Leifer’s short-lived sitcom Alright Already (1997-98), which should have been a bigger hit.
The second season of Laugh-In features one of the show’s iconic moments: then-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon looking into a camera and intoning: “Sock it to me?” In an interview with Dick Martin that’s available on the second season DVD, he relates that Nixon was in the same building where the show was taped, doing campaign spots. and at the coaxing of Laugh-In scribe Paul W. Keyes (a one-time Nixon speechwriter), agreed to do the bit. Democratic Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey was offered an equal time cameo, and though Humphrey’s advisors encouraged him to do it one press agent nixed the idea (he expressed concern to Hubert that they might drench him with water…which isn’t a terrible idea, to be honest). Martin chuckles that when Lena Horne was a later guest on Laugh-In she gave him a swift kick in the shins, believing him to be responsible for Nixon’s election. Time Life’s second season release also features interview footage with announcer Gary Owens (who is as hilariously deadpan in real life as he was on the show) and Ruth Buzzi, whose mouth appears to have gotten wider with the passing of the years. I’m not dunking on Ruth, you understand; her Gladys Ormphby was one of my favorite characters on the show (Buzzi confesses, surprisingly, that she thought Gladys rather one-note…and also reveals that the inspiration for the character was her portrayal of Auntie Mame’s Agnes Gooch in a stage production).
It may not seem as such but Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was groundbreaking television; its rapid, jump-cut editing style was a precursor to the MTV generation, and its influence on TV shows that followed cannot be dismissed (The Benny Hill Show copied its “blackouts,” right down to the zany music). I stated in my earlier post that while its political humor hasn’t aged well (it doesn’t make me chortle as hard as say, sketches on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour…because the writers on that show were more in tune with the counterculture than the Laugh-In staff) the fast-paced, free-wheeling vaudeville style is an endless source of amusement and often times I’ll laugh merely at the sheer audacity of it all. You’ll enjoy the introduction of the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate” and incredible cameos from everyone to Phil Harris and Colonel Sanders in this collection; the third season of the series is scheduled to be released next week (March 20…though there were a few stores that had it available before then) and I’ll not only have more to say about that then I’ll have a little surprise for the TDOY faithful as well.