In the fifth season of NBC’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, the comedy/variety program commemorated its 100th telecast by inviting to mingle with its regulars several of the show’s “alumni”: Judy Carne, Henry Gibson, Teresa Graves, Arte Johnson, and Jo Anne Worley. (Goldie Hawn had also been asked, but she declined.) The special also made good on Dick Martin’s long-standing first season query of “You’re not going to bring back Tiny Tim, are you?” by featuring the eccentric singer along with his polar opposite: legendary motion picture star John “The Duke” Wayne.
The 100th episode would be one of the real highlights of Season Five, a show performed with infectious exuberance (a particular bright spot was one of the series’ best musical numbers, It’s Great to Be Back on Laugh-In) as the veterans blended seamlessly with the “new kids.” Just like the good ol’ days, Carne got drenched with water (plus she did her “Talking Judy Doll”), Gibson read some poetry (as did John Wayne…holding a red, white, and blue flower), and my personal favorite—Alan Sues doing his Jo Anne Worley impersonation alongside the genuine article:
And yet, the anniversary show served as a reminder that Laugh-In was starting to get a little grey around the temples—there was no more definite proof of this than a nostalgic sketch that reunited Ruth Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby with Johnson’s Tyrone F. Horneigh. With the departure of Arte after Season Four, Ruth’s Gladys became the dictionary definition of pathos; the fifth season skits often finding her on that familiar park bench daydreaming about being married to the likes of George Washington, Ben Franklin, or Tarzan. Not that the Gladys character couldn’t be funny in the right Laugh-In venue (they still had the show’s guest stars insulting her at every turn…and receiving several smacks from her trademark handbag); it was just a downer to see her so miserable without the dirty old man who constantly put the moves on her.
Not only had Arte Johnson vamoosed for greener pastures, Season Five was absent Harvey Jason, Glenn Ash, and Nancie Phillips—the latter getting my vote as the most underrated performer in the show’s history (Jason and Ash, on the other hand…didn’t even realize they were gone). Joining as “the new kids” were two comic actors who had just crashed out of Stalag 13 when CBS’ long-running sitcom Hogan’s Heroes wrapped it up after six seasons in 1971: Larry Hovis and Richard Dawson.
Hovis was no stranger to Laugh-In; he appeared in a few telecasts in the show’s abbreviated first season (notably as a David Brinkley-like newscaster) and during his second time around on the show proved to be a most reliable utility player (he was a true chameleon, never really standing out in any particular role save for a mustachioed Senator who addressed all males and females as “Son…”). (It often seemed like Hovis was competing with Dennis Allen as the show’s go-to man…though no one executed physical slapstick quite like Allen, who frequently pulled out the stops as a character called “The Innocent Bystander.”) Larry’s Heroes compadre Dawson (who stayed until the show made its final bow in Season Six) had even more success as a worthy replacement for Henry Gibson (Richard inherited Gibson’s clerical collar, portraying a vicar in the “Party” sketches) and Arte Johnson (Dawson played a doddering old butler named “Hawkins” who would spit out “Permission to [insert action]?” before toppling over). Richard also had an edge in that—as fans of Family Feud would later learn—he had a talent for impressions, mimicking such celebs as W.C. Fields (Johnny Brown couldn’t do The Great Man forever, since he was gone by the sixth season), Paul Lynde (as both a lifeguard and the vicar), and Groucho Marx (as a doctor, lawyer, theatre ticket taker, etc.).
The female members of the Laugh-In cast also continued to shine: though her tap-dancing Spiro Agnew devotee had been phased out, Barbara Sharma introduced favorites as Sarah the Swinger (an octogenarian on the prowl) and a nameless mother reduced to tears whenever she read a card sent to her by one of her family members. Ann Elder functioned much the same as Hovis (maybe that’s why they clicked as writing partners), pressed into service to play a variety of roles (including a most un-P.C. Native American in the “Party” bits). Lily Tomlin had stopped doing Susie Sorority of the Silent Majority (sigh) but added a wisecracking grocery store cashier named Dot and expanded Lula the Party Lady (“Hard as a rock!”) to fit a number of situations, including an air traffic controller.
Ruth Buzzi would be—along with announcer Gary Owens and stars Dan Rowan & Dick Martin—the only Laugh-In zany to remain with the show for its entire run (though if you get technical about it, Owens wasn’t in the show’s pilot…and Buzzi was absent from two shows in the first season). As I noted previously, her Gladys Ormphby just wasn’t as effective without Tyrone to play off of…but she made up for it with the addition of one of my favorites in her hilarious repertoire, ditzy self-help guru Kathleen Pullman, who was inspired by televangelist Kathryn Kuhlman. (Buzzi notes in a featurette from the first season DVD collection that Kuhlman was actually flattered by the send-up, sending her a letter that noted: “No one enjoyed the satire more than I did.”)
Time Life has released the fifth season of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In as a stand-alone DVD set (the street date was July 10), and Foundry Communications’ Michael Krause was most generous to send a screener the way of Rancho Yesteryear (apologies for not getting this up on the blog sooner…but I had a few assignments this month). Viewing its contents, I found the program hadn’t completely jumped the shark (despite the joking remarks I made about Drier and Tera above) but it had lost a little of its snap-crackle-and-pop due to a variety of factors. Its edgy topicality had been overshadowed by shows like All in the Family (Family’s Carroll O’Connor is the guest host on the December 13, 1971 telecast, and his fellow Family members Sally Struthers and Jean Stapleton also turn up on some Laugh-Ins), and its fast-paced comic style had been copied by so many imitators it had ceased to be original. As co-host Dick Martin later observed: “We were called anti-establishment, and pretty soon we were the establishment.” (Laugh-In’s George Schlatter—affectionately known to one and all as “CFG”—was no longer the producer [though he retained his executive producer credit], his ousting being a condition to lure back Paul W. Keyes to the producer’s chair he vacated in the fall of 1969.)
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was for all intents and purposes now a conventional variety show…but that shouldn’t be interpreted as a bad thing: with that amount of talent on the program, it would be impossible not to be entertaining. Furthermore, there were several outstanding telecasts in Season Five: the September 27, 1971 program showcases a rare boob tube appearance from silver screen siren Rita Hayworth—who did some funny characters including a snappish nurse (with Dennis Allen as a terminal patient) and a soused movie legend who immediately sobers up if she thinks the motion picture cameras are rolling. Liza Minnelli plays guest host on a November 8, 1971 installment in which she and Barbara Sharma perform a knockout musical number, Bring Back the Thirties. (These kinds of musical moments were segments that former Laugh-In player Judy Carne had lobbied often to do only to be rebuffed by The Powers That Be—if they had relented, Carne might have stuck around on the show a little longer.)
Many of the cameo performers on the show’s fifth season often seemed to be invited on to plug a TV show on NBC, like Burt Mustin and Queenie Smith (The Funny Side) or Martin Milner and Kent McCord (Adam-12). (I’ll admit, though, watching Milner and McCord stumble over take after take for a quick comedy bit is pretty funny stuff.) But seeing people like Edward G, Robinson and Lee Grant let down their hair is loads of fun…and I think my favorite was an October 18, 1971 outing with guest star Richard Crenna only because at that point in his career he could still do the “Walter Denton” voice. (The January 24, 1972 show with Carl Reiner—I guess they couldn’t get Rob—is also worth the price of admission.) Sock it to me!