In a featurette included on the Time Life DVD set Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Third Season—a stand-alone release that hit your friendly neighborhood brick-and-mortars this March—actress-comedienne Lily Tomlin reminisces that she first met Laugh-In executive producer George Schlatter while auditioning for The Garry Moore Show, a 1966-67 CBS-TV variety hour that was a “reboot” of Moore’s successful 1958-64 series. Tomlin did a “barefoot tap dance” (the taps were taped to the soles of her feet) that earned her a berth on the program (she didn’t stay long, however, due to “creative differences”) yet it would appear that Schlatter had Lily’s antics in the ol’ memory file cabinet by the time Laugh-In went on the air…jogged by viewing tapes of her nightclub act and appearances on Merv Griffin.
By the time “CFG” offered Tomlin a job on Laugh-In, however, Lily was committed to appearing on an ABC series The Music Scene—a 45-minute comedy-variety show that was paired with another three-quarter-hour offering, The New People (an Aaron Spelling series whose pilot was penned by Rod Serling). Both Scene and People had brief runs, and by the time the word came down that Music Scene had been accepted into the Great Television Retirement Home, Lily Tomlin was ready to join the cast of Laugh-In. In fact, her stint with the franchise technically began on its daytime spin-off, Letters to Laugh-In…but the prime-time December 29, 1969 telecast marked her official show debut, where she quickly introduced two of her best-remembered characters.
The first was a nameless personage known as the “Fast Talker,” in which Lily would babble endlessly in an incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness style; the 12/29/69 show finds her introduced as “the new girl” towards the end of the program by hosts Dan Rowan & Dick Martin; both men seem both befuddled and amused by this woman rambling endlessly as if she’s just taken a powerful hit of speed. The other character was “Ernestine,” the obnoxious telephone operator oblivious to any customer concerns (Tomlin once observed that the character was perfect because at the time “no one liked the telephone company”) and whose catchphrases “One ringy-dingy” and “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” would soon become as important to Laugh-In as “Sock it to me” and “Ring my chimes.”
Lily Tomlin became, without question, Laugh-In’s “breakout” performer in the show’s third season, which still maintained its lofty perch at the top of the Nielsen ratings. There would be more Tomlin creations to come, of course; Edith Ann, the five-year-old moppet philosopher who ended monologues with “And that’s the truth” and a hearty Bronx cheer, would become just as popular as Ernestine (Lily was asked to play Ernestine in commercials for AT&T…and she emphatically declined). Two of my favorite Tomlin Laugh-In characters were “The Tasteful Lady” (“Mrs. Earbore”), the society matron with a pronounced stick up her rear, and “Suzie Sorority of the Silent Majority,” a vacuous college student who punctuated her pronouncements with a blasé “Rah!”
Many of the Laugh-In performers introduced in the second season departed for pastures anew: Dave Madden (later of The Partridge Family), Chelsea Brown (who signed a contract with Universal and co-starred on TV’s Matt Lincoln), Dick “Sweet Brother” Whittington, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham (the “Here come da judge” routines would return whenever Sammy Davis, Jr. did the show), “fun couple” Charlie Brill & Mitzi McCall, and J.J. Barry (who had joined the second season midway). Replacing Chelsea in Season 3 was Teresa Graves, who, reluctantly, I knew only from her starring gig on ABC’s Get Christie Love! in the 1970s (“You’re under arrest, sugar!”). Britisher Jeremy Lloyd—a not-unfamiliar name as the co-creator of such Britcoms as Are You Being Served? (I suspect Lloyd jotted down a lot of Laugh-In jokes to prepare for this one) and ‘Allo ‘Allo!—also came on board, as did red-headed ditz Pamela Rodgers. The final member of the “New Kids” quartet (as they were referred to in the third season premiere) was Byron Gilliam, who had appeared on Laugh-In earlier as a dancer…it’s just that he got a little more to do in Season 3. (Gilliam was a better dancer than comedian, and he would stick around for two additional seasons in a terpsichorean capacity only.)
I mentioned in the comments section in the previous post reviewing Laugh-In’s second season that I think Season 3 was probably the show’s strongest—not to take anything away from Season 2, which had some outstanding moments. But Season 3 has a sort of irresistible loosey-goosey feel to it; the presentation of the jokes isn’t as mechanical as in seasons past and there’s a refreshing improvisational feel to the proceedings (though they copied the Carol Burnett Show formula by leaving in many of the ad-libs and goofs). The political satire of Laugh-In became a bit sharper as well; Season 3 saw the introduction of Dan Rowan’s General Bull Right character, a right-wing lampoon of overbearing military types (“Smoke ’em if you got ’em”) that makes left-wing troublemakers like myself titter and tee-hee. Several of the Season 3 shows rank among my favorites in the series; I enjoyed seeing comedy idols like Sid Caesar, Jack Benny and Jonathan Winters as hosts and celebs like Greer Garson (who imitates Mae West) perform out of their wheelhouse.
There were disappointments in the third season (see photo above) but perhaps the biggest blows were the departures of three Laugh-In favorites: Judy Carne, Goldie Hawn, and Jo Anne Worley. Carne vanished mid-season (in hindsight, she regretted the decision) and Hawn, an Oscar winner for Cactus Flower, insisted on working out the remainder of her contract. Worley’s decision to leave came quite as a surprise (I can’t help it–there’s just something irresistibly goofy about that gal that makes me laugh) but she apparently did so on the advice of her agent and manager (though she would return to the show to do cameos in later seasons).
My compadre Michael Krause at Foundry Communications was, as always, kind enough to make certain I had a screener for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Third Season…but thanks to the generosity of a member of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful (who asked to remain anonymous) I’m in possession of an extra set. It’s been a long while since I hosted a giveaway on the blog, so I’m going to give you an opportunity to score this spare copy. Leave us proceed with the official rules!
1) Send me an e-mail with “Laugh-In Giveaway” in the subject header to igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com. You have until 11:59pm EDT on April 2, 2018 (next Monday) to enter. (If you include something clever like “You bet your sweet bippy” it may not earn you any favoritism…but it will make me laugh.)
2) Make sure you are a U.S. or Canada resident or have a U.S. or Canadian mailing address. (I’m feeling generous to include our good neighbors to the north because the post office I deal with here in Pixley is a bit more accommodating. But despite what the GOP insists, I am not going to benefit from their atrocious tax scam bill, and postage to The Great White North can be a bitch.)
3) It’s been nearly a year since I’ve handed out swag on the blog so previous winners are encouraged to enter. (Everybody should enter, come to think of it!)
4) I will choose a winner the morning (via the Random Number Generator at Random.com) of April 3rd and contact them via e-mail as to their enormous good fortune. When you enter, it’s not necessary to provide a snail-mail address (your name will suffice) if you’re concerned about your undisclosed location falling into the wrong hands…like Facebook, for example. You can provide me the details should you receive that “Congratulations!” e-mail.
5) As always…there is no number five.
So ferchrissake, cartooners—stop posting those cat pictures on Instagram…you’ve got a contest to enter! And remember: Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is the phrase that pays!