Television

“Mervin…that was magnificent!

season4

On the third show of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’s fourth season (September 28, 1970), stars Dan Rowan and Dick Martin prepare to welcome back a familiar face:

DAN: Aren’t you excited this week?
DICK: Why?
DAN: Huh?
DICK: Why?
DAN: Goldie Hawn’s our guest star!
DICK: Goldie Hawn a guest star?
DAN: Guest star!
DICK: Well, she’s on every week!
DAN: She’s not a regular anymore…you didn’t see her the last…first two shows, did you? Did you see her last week? See her the week before that?
DICK: Nooooo…well, if she can’t show up regularly…let’s get rid of her!
DAN: Dick…Goldie’s been in the movies!
DICK: Well, that’s worse! Why can’t she go to movies on Wednesdays like the rest of us?
DAN: No…no…no…didn’t you see Cactus Flower?
DICK: As a matter of fact, I did…I saw it last Wednesday…heh heh…I’ve been meaning to mention it…there’s a little blonde in there that’s just great…we ought to get her to replace Goldie!
DAN: Yeah…well, that was Goldie…
DICK: Well…which one was Walter Matthau again?

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Goldie Hawn guest stars on Laugh-In

Returning to Laugh-In as that week’s guest star, Goldie enters the stage in “star mode,” wearing a tiara, jewels and cape and carrying the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (which she hands off to Ruth Buzzi) she won for her performance in Cactus Flower: “And I’d like to thank all the little people who stood in my way before I pushed them aside,” she chirps immodestly.  The cast and crew tolerate Hawn’s star trip for only so long before she’s doused with a few buckets of water, which causes her to revert to her lovable, giggly Laugh-In dumb blonde self (“For a minute I thought you guys had changed!”).  Goldie’s “Old Home Week” return is just one of the many highlights of the classic telecasts available on the Time Life release of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fourth Season—a standalone seven-disc set that hits the streets tomorrow (May 8) for those of us who couldn’t quite mow enough lawns to purchase the earlier entire Complete Series release.

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Every time she thinks she’s out…they pull her back in! Teresa Graves also returns to Laugh-In for two shows, and sings a nice “Laugh-In Looks at the News:” number with Johnny Brown.
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Alan Sues, in drag as Jo Anne Worley. (Laugh-In without Jo Anne can be “Bo-ring!“)

Goldie Hawn was not the only Laugh-In veteran whose presence would be missed in Season Four; the show would also say goodbye to Jo Anne Worley and Henry Gibson (who does appear in a few fourth season installments—he even asks a question of William F(uh) Buckley in the December 28, 1970 telecast), not to mention newcomers Jeremy Lloyd, Pamela Rodgers, Byron Gilliam, and Teresa Graves.  (Gilliam continued Laugh-In as a dancer, and Graves returned for back-to-back episodes in January/February 1971.)  Among the new faces introduced in Season Four was Johnny Brown (“Hmmmmm…”), a talented black comic-impressionist who got a tryout in a few third season episodes (that’s why Goldie recognizes him as she meets “the new kids”…though she mistakes him for “Uncle Ben” [“I just love your rice!”]).  I’ll wager that many members of the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful recognize Brown as landlord Nathan “Buffalo Butt” Bookman on the TV sitcom Good Times (on which Laugh-In scribe Allan Mannings as an executive producer) but if you’ve not been exposed to any of his Laugh-In work (he would remain until the end of Season Five) you’re in for quite a treat; Johnny does some first-rate impressions of Alfred Hitchcock, Ed Sullivan, Jim Nabors, W.C. Fields, and many more.  One of the standout sketches on the fourth season set is in a January 4, 1971 show guest-starring Sammy Davis, Jr. that features Sammy and Johnny doing an updated version of Amos ‘n’ Andy; it may not be politically correct but the duo has fun playing the controversial team with posh, upper crust accents (Andy is now an investment banker).

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Barbara Sharma earned rave notices as a Ruby Keeler-type heroine in the stage hit Dames at Sea; in a riotous sketch from a December 14, 1970 telecast (with Debbie Reynolds), she channels Keeler with Arte Johnson (as Dick Powell) in a musical number where they are continually pelted with water.
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Ann Elder

Two further additions, Ann Elder and Barbara Sharma, eked out two season stints on Laugh-In: Elder on the strength of her utility playing (she picked up the torch originally carried by the likes of Judy Carne and Pam Austin) and her writing talent—she collaborated with another comic who had previously appeared on Laugh-In (and would return in Season Five), Larry Hovis.  Elder left the show at the end of the 1971-72 season but later took home Emmy Awards as a member of the writing staff for two of Laugh-In co-star Lily Tomlin’s prime time TV specials in 1973 (Lily) and 1975 (The Lily Tomlin Special).

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Two of my favorite Tomlin characters: Susie Sorority of the Silent Majority and Edith Ann. Lily notes in the fourth season featurette that she agreed to do Susie (“Rah!”) only if she could reciprocate with Edith Ann; in her early segments, Edith Ann peeked out from a cardboard box before switching to her trademark rocking chair.

Tiny Barbara Sharma (“How about a little drinkie-poo?”) was one of the best things to happen to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in its later seasons; her bubbly vivaciousness coming to the fore with a recurring character decked out in red, white and blue offering heartfelt odes to Spiro Agnew…Barbara was convinced that he was the Commander-in-Chief, referring to the veep as “Mr. Pres-ee-dent.”  (Sharma would accompany these tributes with a little tap dancing, which she also utilized for a meter maid character that turned up in many of Laugh-In’s filmed blackout bits.)  Laugh-In composer-lyricist Billy Barnes went on record to state that Sharma and Alan Sues were “two of the funniest people in the world,” and I knew Barbara from her post-Laugh-In work on such sitcoms as Rhoda (she was Rhoda’s business partner), Frasier, and Becker.

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Nancie Phillips

I love Sharma, and I’m also a big fan of Nancie Phillips, whose tenure on Laugh-In was unfortunately too brief (according to Hal Erickson’s “From Beautiful Downtown Burbank”: A Critical History of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, 1968-1973, Phillips left the show after 26 weeks…but her departure was even quicker than that; before the season was over, she was only appearing in previously filmed inserts/bits).  In correspondence with mystery writer John MacDonald, Dan Rowan had much praise for Phillips, believing her to be “as versatile as Ruth Buzzi and is prettier” but apart from a few characters—including a Scarlett O’Hara-like belle in the “Party” sequences (“That’s tacky!”) and a dead-on impression of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—Phillips was never really used to her full potential (I thought she had a nice Eileen Brennan quality about her, with a smidge of Jo Anne Worley for spice).  She was definitely funnier than two other fourth season comers, the British Harvey Jason (most unmemorable) and Glenn Ash, who I know only from his two Mayberry R.F.D. appearances (“The Pet Shop” and “The New Farmhand”).

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Ernestine finally faces her nemesis “Mr. Veedle” (Gore Vidal).
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Dennis Allen

The Laugh-In newcomer who had the most staying power (he was there until the show bowed out in March of 1973) was Dennis Allen, memorably described by Erickson as “he of the Ichabod Crane deportment and basset-hound face.”  Allen excelled at physical slapstick, but he was no slouch in the verbal comedy arena either; among his memorable characters were a flustered policeman in the “Party” segments, news commentator Eric Clarified, and chaplain Bud Homily.  One of my favorite fourth season episodes (telecast December 7, 1970) features Phil Silvers—who gets a taste of his own medicine when Dan and Dick teach him to say, “Sock it to me” by manipulating his mouth (“Pear shaped tones!”) in familiar Silvers fashion (“I’ve seen this bit somewhere,” observes Phil).  Later, Phil conducts a “physical comedy” tutorial with a wooden board and poor Allen on the receiving end (a screamingly funny bit).

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Art Carney reprises Ed Norton, with Johnny Brown (impersonating Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden): “If you ask me…I think you’ve been out in that Miami sun too long!”
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Rowan & Martin with TDOY idol Phil Silvers (“Gladaseeya!”)

All twenty-six episodes from the show’s fourth season are included in this collection, and I’ll have to admit a little bias when I say the ones I enjoyed the most place emphasis on top comedy talent (Don Rickles, Zero Mostel, Tim Conway, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner, Jack Benny. etc.) but it’s interesting to note that two of Mayberry’s favorite sons, Ken Berry and Andy Griffith, also guest star in shows (I will reiterate that Ken Berry was a member of Laugh-In’s original cast in the pilot…and had they agreed to take him on full-time we would have been spared Mayberry R.F.D.).  The season opener, with Art Carney, is a hilarious show with a funny sketch featuring Art as “The Masked Lobster,” looking for work as a crimefighter; he interviews with employment office head Lily Tomlin, and I had to smile because I was reminded of their sublime teaming in the 1977 hard-boiled detective homage The Late Show.  There’s also this cherce (as Ed Norton would say) bit toward the end of the show:

DAN: Hey, Art…look at that guy down there getting mugged, and the crowd’s just standing around watching him…
ART: The Burbank audiences are the greatest audiences in the world!

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Guest star Desi Arnaz with (L-R): Sharma, Phillips, Elder and Ruth Buzzi (Lily Tomlin is behind Elder)
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William F(uh) Buckley

One of Laugh-In’s most beloved telecasts (an October 26, 1970 Halloween special cheekily titled “Rowan and Martin’s Boo-In”) is also in this collection; Hal has a nice write-up on it in his Burbank but suffice it to say it’s an hour of unbridled hilarity with guest star/obedient servant Orson Welles tongue-in-cheekily reprising his role from The Shadow (Orson: “Who knows…what evil…lurks in the hearts of men?”  Johnny: “The Shadow do!”) and participating as the narrator of a radio show entitled “Horror Theatre” (Dennis Allen is a riot as the sound effects man menaced by the actual monster Welles is describing to his audience).  Another fondly remembered installment features William F(uh) Buckley, invited onto the show to answer questions from Dan, Dick, and the rest of the cast; if you’re a fan of Buckley’s you’ll find it most amusing…but if you remember (like me) that Bill began his 1950s conservatism as a defender of white supremacy (the magazine he founded, National Review, was started to promote this)…you may be scratching your head as to why Laugh-In offered him such a platform in the first place.

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I have a lot of favorite Ruth Buzzi characters—Gladys Ormphby, gossip columnist Busy Buzzi (“Kissy kissy!”)—but barfly Doris Swizzle (here with her husband Leonard, played by Dick Martin) is my true favorite (Ruth loved the character, too). Purportedly the network insisted that when the drunk couple appeared on the show they should only be in the second half lest impressionable children think alcoholism was funny (the shows on Season 4 do not always bear this out, however).
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What has been seen…cannot be unseen.

This Time Life release demonstrates that even though Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was no longer the nation’s most popular TV offering (it forfeited the top spot in the Nielsens to Marcus Welby, M.D.) there was still plenty of life in the comedy hour (it ranked #13 in the 1970-71 season, making it NBC’s fifth most popular series) despite changes in cast and crew.  There’s much to enjoy here, including Dinah Shore as a dominatrix-stripper (bet you won’t get that image out of your head soon) and Marcello Mastroianni removing his toupee, and the fourth season set also includes featurettes from surviving members Lily Tomlin (a continuation of the one she did for the Season Three set) and Arte Johnson.  (Johnson recalls that his celebrated “Tyrone F. Horneigh” character was inspired by both Edgar Buchanan and a gentleman Johnson knew in real-life who “spent a little too much time at the playground.”)  Many thanks to my good friend Michael Krause for providing me with both the screener…and a lot of king-sized laughs.

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4 thoughts on ““Mervin…that was magnificent!

  1. I don’t think Mayberry RFD doesn’t get made w/o Ken Berry. I think it still happens, but they find someone else. Personally, I’d think they would still reach into the F-Troop pool and pull James Hampton (who would then avoid stinking up the Doris Day Show in your estimation) in to fill the slot.

    As for Laugh-In, it ended too soon to suit.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanx for the heads-up; the order goes out forthwith …

    I’ll note in passing:

    – I had a crush on Ann Elder going back a few years to her earlier acting appearances on McHale’s Navy (as a possible love interest for Tim Conway), Wild Wild West (as a fetching co-villainess to Don Rickles), and a few others I’ll remember as soon as I hit Post.
    (These days, Ann Elder is in her 70s, and retired to her native Cleveland area.)

    – The above also applies to Barbara Sharma, whose apparent disappearance from the business can only be ascribed to the Curse Of Demographics, the Junk Science of the last half-century.

    – Sometimes, in watching old Laugh-Ins, I can get caught short by the sizable number of cast members who are now deceased.
    I speak in particular of Dennis Allen, who didn’t make it to his mid-50s; I have to believe that the physical punishment he took in the three years he was on Laugh-In didn’t help any.

    – I need to mention my long-standing jealousy of Harvey Jason.
    Along about the same time that his stint on Laugh-In ended, Jason married another of my youthful crushes, Pamela Franklin (as far as I know, the two remain married to the present day).

    It was about this time that Laugh-In had a shortfall of willing male participants in musical numbers.
    This led their music man Billy Barnes away from his usual station at the piano, and into costume for song-and-dance duty.
    It didn’t happen often, but you can spot him if you try.

    A Friendship, the book-length collection of the Dan Rowan/John D. MacDonald correspondence, is worth searching out and reading; very informative indeed.

    Apologies for the prolixity, but I rarely get a chance to show off like this lately …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did spot Billy in a few of the musical numbers they did in Season 4, but I didn’t think to associate it with the male cast member deficit. I also wasn’t clued in to the Jason-Franklin nuptials, so many thanks for that.

      I have to confess that my only exposure to Elder’s work were her game show appearances (MATCH GAME, HOLLYWOOD SQUARES) so seeing her work on LAUGH-IN has made me a fan.

      And I am in agreement with you regarding the shabby treatment of my crush Barbara Sharma. I remember seeing her in her two appearances on FRASIER (she played the mother of Saul Rubinek’s character) and being filled with joy at seeing an old friend.

      Like

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