In correspondence that Dan Rowan composed to author John D. MacDonald in 1972, the longtime Laugh-In co-host/straight man observed: “Bland and nice have set in and we could be the Nelson family doing a variety show. Why is this? Maybe because we have run out of things to say.” Rowan’s ruminations about the series that was once the #1 television show in the ratings (in both the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons) succinctly sum up the consensus on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: it yukked on one season longer than it should have.
That sixth (and final) season was for many years difficult to access until Laugh-In reruns started making the rounds on the Decades channel in September of 2016, and Time Life made the complete series available in a honkin’ big DVD collection at about the same time. Time Life has also been quite good about releasing each separate season in a stand-alone manner for those of us who have been exhausted by the couch cushions treasure hunt; season six hit stores last Tuesday (September 4), and my chum Michael Krause at Foundry Communications obliged me with a screener.
I have to apologize for the quiet that’s been on the blog lately, by the way; much of it was the result of my watching the twenty-four telecasts that comprise the final season set…but I’ve also been toiling on some outside assignments that will generate the wherewithal to fund what appears to be my latest obsession: collecting Hanna-Barbera Funko Pop! figurines.
Laugh-In’s sixth season opener introduced a roster of “new kids,” owing to the departures of show veteran Alan Sues and favorites Johnny Brown, Ann Elder, Barbara Sharma (gosh, I miss Barbara), and Larry Hovis. The most prominent of the new additions was Jud Strunk, a self-described “semi-reformed, tequila-crazed gypsy” who had generated a lot of buzz with a well-received ABC special, telecast in the summer of 1972. Strunk had both a homespun quality to his humor (Strunk often singled out Will Rogers as his role model) and a musical proficiency that included the banjo (he performs several humorous “patriotic songs” as General Bullright’s son “U.S.”) …but as Hal Erickson observes in “From Beautiful Downtown Burbank…” Jud was “more of a solo artist than an ensemble player.” Strunk inherited the sportscaster gig from the departed Sues in Laugh-In’s “News” segments, but that shtick got old fairly quickly (he frequently referenced his hometown of “Farmington (pronounced FAHM-meng-ton), Maine”) since it was comprised of running footage of athletes backward for weak comic effect.
Strunk’s lasting legacy was a hit record—that peaked at #14 on the Hot 100 in 1973—entitled Daisy a Day, a wistful remembrance about the lifelong bond between a couple very much in love. (He performs the tune on the February 19, 1973 telecast.) If I may be permitted a brief digression, Daisy was also a country hit (#33)…but at WMOV, the Ravenswood, WV radio station where I worked in my halcyon teenage years, we inexplicably had a copy of Strunk’s The Biggest Parakeets in Town in our oldies library and not his more celebrated hit. Jud, a private pilot, suffered a heart attack shortly after taking off in his 1941 Fairchild M62-A in October of 1981 and the resulting crash took both his life (he was 45 years old) and longtime friend Dick Ayotte.
Ventriloquist Willie Tyler (and his dummy Lester) was also no stranger to TV (Tyler had made multiple appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show), and while a number of sources (including Erickson in his Laugh-In book) have bestowed considerable praise on Willie as being one of the show’s sixth season bright spots, I was never a very big fan of his act—though I was pleased to see that Tyler was far more effective without Lester: he sang and danced quite well, and had a keen sense of comic timing. (Both Willie and Lester enjoyed a long post-Laugh-In career on the nightclub circuit and as game show panelists…the duo also hosted ABC’s Weekend Specials from 1981-84.) My personal favorite of the new show additions was Ace Trucking Company veteran Patti Deutsch (also a familiar game show face, particularly Match Game), who did scores of memorable routines including Laugh-In “News” characters like exhausted home economist Meg Cracken and Heavy Helen, reporter of “the far-out freaky news.” My favorite Deutsch character was Sister Mary Youngman, a nun who did stand-up (“Take my Mother Superior...please!”) but she also excelled at playing mothers of celebrities (she was Helen Cosell, the equally obnoxious matriarch of sportscaster Howard). One bit that produced a hearty chuckle in your humble narrator was Deutsch’s portrayal of Dean Martin’s mother—who enters her living room by sliding down the same fireman’s pole her “son” did on his weekly TV series. (Before her passing in 2017, Patti also did quite a bit of voice work on animated shows like Capitol Critters and The Angry Beavers.)
Blonde-haired and blue-eyed Sarah Kennedy (who would also do a lot of voice work once her stint on Laugh-In had ended, on series like Bailey’s Comets and Emergency +4) was touted by the show’s publicity department as “the new Goldie Hawn”—but I think that’s a more fitting description for Donna Jean Young, a charming performer who nevertheless often battled reading cue cards in her “TV review” segments during “Laugh-In Looks at the News.” Young’s other contributions to the show demonstrate that the cutesy “Oh-I-can’t-remember-my-lines” shtick was mostly manufactured, because she was quite competent (and funny) elsewhere. Sadly, Donna didn’t have much of a career once Laugh-In folded its tent (she passed on in 2010)…which was a shame, since both she and Kennedy were charismatic presences on the show and quite versatile in the utility roles to which they were assigned (there are a number of shows where Donna isn’t around, though).
At the time Hal was writing his Laugh-In book, the sixth season episodes remained inaccessible, so he remarks that it’s “difficult to fully determine the niche which another newcomer, Vancouver-born Brian Bressler, was expected to fill.” I won’t hold you in suspense: Bressler did nothing memorable, and he did it poorly (his sole post-Laugh-In credit according to the [always reliable] IMDb was voicing a 1983 animated short, The Great Cognito). Bressler had my vote as all-time worst Laugh-In performer until he was replaced mid-season by Lisa Farringer, whose inept, heavily-accented presentation of stale “Whoopee!” jokes (the woman had neither personality nor comic timing) would lead you to believe that she retreated to obscurity not long after. (Au contraire—she appeared in cult films like Coffy (1973) and Truck Turner (1974), where her attractiveness was clearly an asset.) I was sorely tempted to single out Moosie Drier for “Worst Performer” honor…but as much as child actors fill me with revulsion (to add insult to injury, Drier got a unfunny sidekick in Tod Bass on his second year of the show) at least Moosie was funny on The Bob Newhart Show (as Howie, the son of wacky neighbor Howard Border—RIP, Bill Daily).
The Laugh-In veterans—Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Dennis Allen, Richard Dawson, and Gary Owens—continued to do fine work although Dawson started to milk his Groucho Marx/W.C. Fields impressions a bit much. Tomlin was present for only about half of the Season 6 shows (one of her characters I enjoyed was Angel Good, the Heavenly correspondent in the “News” segments) but was starting to look for the exits—her Edith Ann comedy album And That’s the Truth was released to much acclaim, and four days after Laugh-In’s final telecast Lily’s first network special (The Lily Tomlin Show) would score quite well in the Nielsen ratings and garner an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy, Variety or Music (Laugh-In scribes Allan Manings and John Rappaport contributed to this, as did Richard Pryor and Lily’s former Laugh-In compadre Ann Elder).
Dennis Allen consistently demonstrated that he had no peer on Laugh-In when it came to physical comedy (he teamed up with Sarah Kennedy to get laughs as Hollywood couple Lance and Tina Proudfoot in the “News” segments) but it was Ruth Buzzi who continued to give her all, whether it was with old favorites like Gladys Ormphby and Kathleen Pullman or new additions like medical expert Dr. Martha Welby and “Godmother” Alice Capone. Ruth would win a well-deserved Golden Globe in 1973 as Best Supporting Actress for her Laugh-In contributions, and enjoyed a long, fruitful career as a voiceover artist and performer on such shows as The Lost Saucer (a favorite of mine as a kid) and Sesame Street.
Let’s be honest about Laugh-In’s final season: with the surfeit of talent on the show and the still-funny exchanges between Dan Rowan and Dick Martin (my appreciation of them as a splendid comedy team has grown considerably since I started watching these shows), you can’t truthfully say there aren’t entertaining moments. I gravitate to the shows with favorites like Jack Benny, William Conrad, Don Rickles, and Jack Klugman…but you might also get a nice nostalgia rush watching couples like James Farentino/Michele Lee and Meredith Baxter/David Birney let down their comedic hair. The problem with the show is that it had finally run out of gas; as Dick Martin acknowledged at the time to The Los Angeles Times, “…it had become predictable, and in that form, predictability is a curse.” Both Dan and Dick had finally taken over as executive producers of the series in Laugh-In’s sixth season (and contrary to what I was led to believe, the political content wasn’t really all that conservative…just very, very lame); the man chiefly responsible for making the program the institution it was, George ”C.F.G.” Schlatter, was a little less charitable, labeling it “an inane, babbling pile of bullshit.” Schlatter attempted to revive the series in 1977 as a series of monthly specials that generated all of the enthusiasm as a downpour at a Little League game. (One of his new cast members was a then-unknown Robin Williams, whose popularity on Mork and Mindy prompted NBC to rerun the Laugh-In specials in the summer of ’79 to remarkably improved ratings.)
An early indication that Laugh-In had come to the end of its road is that the show wasn’t even able to come up with a wacky catchphrase like in times past (producer Paul W. Keyes seemed to think “Pookie pookie pookie” was a thigh-slapper), though they did do one bit that made me smile: “Not to mention (insert subject).” “(Subject inserted)?” “I told you not to mention it!” If you’re a fan of the series, I don’t want you to be discouraged about buying the sixth season (if you don’t already own it) but I need to be upfront about how a large portion of the show was at this point in its long run simply going through the motions. Dan Rowan, in remarks to TV Guide, delivered the postmortem by observing that the series “made a helluva splash. Six years ago when we came on with that show, there hadn’t been anything like it on TV. It was the first truly television use of comedy.”