Television

Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls

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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.

season2In 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.

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“Big Al” and his little “tinkle”

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).

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Newcomer Dave Madden with Laugh-In veteran Goldie Hawn

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.

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Sweet Chelsea Brown

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.”)

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Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham

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.

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Sonny Tufts?
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Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill

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.

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Gladys (Ruth Buzzi) and Tyrone (Arte Johnson)

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).

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Hosts Dan Rowan and the lovely Dick Martin handing out another Flying Fickle Finger of Fate

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.

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12 thoughts on “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls

  1. “Music Scene”, which was where Lily Tomlin was at the start of the 1969-70 season, must’ve been flushed early to have her move to Laugh-In so quickly. It was silly fun from what I’ve seen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It did flush early; ABC cancelled it in January of 1970 but news of the show’s axing came early enough for Lily to join Laugh-In on the December 29, 1969 telecast.

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  2. Just for the record, thanks to Amazon I took delivery on Laugh-In: Season 2 about two weeks ago.
    They have the best price on Prime; I intend to stick it out for the whole series.
    Season 3 is announced for the first week of May.

    Meanwhile, using the excuse you’ve just given me with the pic of McCall & Brill:

    Remember a cop show called Silk Stalkings, which ran in late night slots on CBS, and later on cable?
    The first season, Ben Vereen played the grumpy captain; he left at season’s end.
    The producers wanted a Name to take his place, and they made an offer to Hal Linden, who turned them down in what they considered a condescending manner.
    After a time, they signed Charlie Brill for the part, but decided to get some of their own back.
    Brill’s grumpy cop was given the name – Captain Harold Lipshitz.
    That’s Hal Linden’s real name.
    (Oh, and Mitzi McCall made occasional appearances as Mrs. Lipshitz.)

    OK, irrelevant, but I like the story …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve actually never seen an episode of Stalkings (though I was familiar that there was a show of the same name) but I do remember coming across the info that they appeared on the show. I can see why Brill and McCall didn’t last long on Laugh-In — their material was pretty weak.

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  3. Loved this season with Chelsea Brown back when Nick at Nite was showing the reruns nightly circa 1988-1990 (my first exposure to LAUGH-IN). And while I was sad to see she didn’t return for Season 3, we did get the arrival of Teresa Graves, which was just fine with me too. 🙂

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  4. I can tell that you got some of your information from Hal Erickson’s “from Beautiful Downtown Burbank” book, which while it had a few minor errors gave an excellent history of comedy going back more than 2000 years and of LAUGH-IN as well. I think it’s a shame that Dave Madden didn’t spend more time on the show, but I do like that he had his own showcase bit in the 2nd season premiere, which is more than his fellow newbies received.

    I was first aware of Mitzi & Charlie when they frequently appeared on TATTLETALES together in the 1970s. They may have made appearances in the 1980s revival as well.. I know Roxanne & Jack Carter appeared on both versions together. I hadn;t heard of them for years until I saw them on an NBC program, “The Story Behind the Story”, in May 1990, which is where I first heard about their 1 & only Ed Sullivan appearance on the night of The Beatles’ debut appearance. It’s a shame that didn’t work out better for them, but they’re still together more than 50 years later. I remember my late brother & his wife enjoyed watching SILK STALKINGS back in the 1990s, and I’m pretty sure Charlie & Mitzi’s characters provided some comic relief.

    I much prefer LAUGH-IN to the show that the Smothers Brothers had back in the 1960s, probably because my personal politics run closer to Paul Keyes’ than anyone else associated with LAUGH-IN. Hal Erickson made a good point that the Smothers probably would’ve worn themselves out with their audience even without their problems with CBS. I did see their 1975 NBC show at least once and don’t remember anything controversial about it, but then I was just 9 years old at the time. I had a chance to see Schlatter’s other 1-hit show, TURN-ON, at a broadcasting museum once, New York or Chicago, and I was surprised that I was more bored than offended by it. I think I was ready for it to be over after about 10 minutes, which is all that some viewers in certain areas were able to see.

    I bought the full LAUGH-IN DVD set covering all episodes of all seasons. I looked at the “best of” package that Time-Life was advertising, but it appeared to be missing some of the episodes that I wanted to see. I also hate having someone else choose for me what’s “best” and what isn’t. I haven’t gotten around to seeing too many of them yet, but I do plan to watch even the later episodes. I remember my father forbidding me to watch the show in its last spring 1973 reruns, as he considered it “sick humor”, so I’ve been thinking of watching some of those later episodes this spring on the 45th anniversaries of their rerun dates (fortunately Erickson has a full episode guide, including rerun dates, in his book) in my dad’s “honor”.

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    1. I plead guilty to consulting Hal’s book for some background with which I wasn’t familiar. McFarland Books had a Kindle sale this past Cyber Monday that allowed me to pick it up for $3.99.

      I’m working my way through the third season right now and I was pleasantly surprised that the political humor has developed a bit more of an edge (particularly with the introduction of Rowan’s General Bull Wright). I’m not entirely unconvinced that Laugh-In’s third season represented the peak during its five-year-run.

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      1. Personally I prefer Season 2, with the cast at the time. I liked Dave Madden on this show, and Season 3 began to see original cast defections, starting with that of Judy Carne. I think it was also the highest-rated season on NBC, and the episode of March 24, 1969, 2nd to final from Season 2, was the highest-rated individual episode. I have watched that episode on DVD, as well as the Season 2 finale, which featured Billy Graham as a guest.

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  5. Great review and I’m planning on buying the sets with Season 1. I have vague memories watching this show with my folks back when I was a tot. More fun for me then was the kid’s cartoon take on LAUGH IN called GROOVIE GHOULIES, featuring the voice talents of Larry Storch among others. That series makes a nice complement to LAUGH IN.

    I did not know Dave Madden did a turn on LAUGH IN. I also didn’t know he had a post-PARTRIDGE FAMILY career on ALICE. Charlie Brill’s biggest claim to fame may not be LAUGH IN or SILK STALKINGS but his pivotal role in the iconic “Trouble with Tribbles” episode of STAR TREK.

    Thanks for the informative and fun reading!

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