It was 20 years ago this month that "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" burst onto American television with its blitz of jokes, sight gags, one-liners and blackouts delivered at such a dizzying pace that it left TV viewers agog. Television has never been the same.
Even after two decades, the arrival of "Laugh-In" on Sept. 9, 1967, is regarded as a turning point in the medium's evolution, and the death Tuesday of one of its stars, Dan Rowan, brings to mind once again the impact of the show.
"Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" was regarded as a phenomenon that broke the walls of comedy-variety programming. After its appearance as a special that September, it became a weekly series the following January, and its influence was almost immediately evident in other TV shows, in films, in commercials, even on radio. "Laugh-In" clones still appear today.
The show also made stars of the likes of Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Joanne Worley--and Dan Rowan and Dick Martin.
The Rowan and Martin comedy team had appeared here and there on TV variety shows without great impact, but that changed with "Laugh-In."
Martin was the "slow" half of the team. Mustachioed Rowan, with his frustrated look, was the "bright" one. "Say good night, Dick," he'd tell Martin at the close of the show, to which Martin would promptly respond, "Good night, Dick."
Dressed in their black tuxedos, hosts Rowan and Martin presided over the free-wheeling goings on--awarding the Fickle Finger of Fate, sticking their heads out of the joke wall at the end of the show, dropping one-liners and double- entendres at the cocktail party.
There were the sayings--"Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls," "You bet your sweet bippy," "Sock it to me"--coming out of Beautiful Downtown Burbank (NBC studios in Burbank, where the show originated) and becoming national bywords.
Yet along with all the weekly hilarity, the enormous popularity, the success, the top ratings and the Emmy Awards won by the show, there was dissension. Exactly who could take credit for creating "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In"?
Rowan and Martin claimed it was their idea. Producer George Schlatter said it was his. Some in the business pointed to Ernie Kovacs and Olsen & Johnsen's "Helzapoppin' " and even the Keystone Kops and wondered what all the "Laugh-In" fuss was about, since these comic greats had done the same kind of crazy things years earlier.
The bickering went on throughout the run of the series, but after six successful seasons, and as the final segment was about to air in the spring of 1973, Schlatter sought in an interview with The Times to stress the accomplishments of "Laugh-In," not to continue the argument.
"It was a milestone," he said then, "the first new creation in TV because it was not a radio show done so you could see it, not a nightclub act or theater show or motion picture. It was a pure television form using the techniques available to television and taking into account the whole accelerated learning process. It was an individual, definable American TV art form."
You bet your sweet bippy it was. And regardless of the genesis, Dan Rowan was part of it.