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The bippy revolution

'Laugh-In' stalwarts recall the development of the influential comedy series, which changed TV -- and U.S. history too.

June 29, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

If Hubert Humphrey had accepted an invitation to appear on NBC's phenomenally popular comedy-variety series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in the fall of 1968, we might never have had a Western White House in San Clemente, might never have heard of Watergate, might only think of "Deep Throat" as a film Linda Lovelace wished she'd never made.

Humphrey, the Democrats' presidential nominee that year, reportedly said that part of the reason he lost the election that November to Richard Nixon was that the dour Republican nominee did a cameo on "Laugh-In," which was then the hottest show on television, commanding 50% of the viewing audience. On the Sept. 16, 1968, installment, Nixon looked into the camera and offered his unique reading of the show's catch phrase: "Sock it ... to me?"

"Nixon had a reputation for no sense of humor," says the series' producer-creator, George Schlatter. Nixon's good friend, Paul Keyes, who worked on the show as a writer, told him that "Laugh-In" was the way to change his image. "Paul convinced him that this would expose him to a different kind of audience as a good guy, which in fact it did. We tried to get Humphrey to appear on the show. We chased him all over and he wouldn't do it."

The Nixon episode of "Laugh-In" is one of six memorable installments featured in Rhino Home Video's new three-disc DVD set ($50) of the Emmy Award-winning series that aired on NBC from 1968 to 1973, and changed the face of television with its rapid-fire jokes, political humor, zany characters, fast-paced editing and irreverence. The series made stars out of many of its regulars, who included Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley, Alan Sues, Gary Owens and Ruth Buzzi.

It seemed at once to sneer at the counterculture and revel in it -- the show's name was adapted from the then au courant campus sit-ins and be-ins. It covered Hawn's bikini-clad body in Day-Glo body paint on the one hand, and spotlighted the Republican standard-bearer on the other. Perhaps that's why it never had the cachet of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," another musical-variety show that aired roughly concurrently. Yet by sheer dint of its popularity, "Laugh-In" occupied a spot on the baby boomers' comedy continuum, one that began with Mad magazine, continued with "Laugh-In," then the National Lampoon and NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

"If you look at 'Laugh-In,' they deal with many of the same issues as the Smothers Brothers, the same jabs at the Johnson administration, but it's done in the fun, lighthearted atmosphere," says Ron Simon, curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. "It was more cultural satire than strictly political satire. Obviously, it had the energy and pop culture to it, but its heart wasn't entirely in politics as the Smothers Brothers became over time."

Schlatter agrees. "There was a bubbling kind of political unrest into which the Beatles, Lenny Bruce and 'Laugh-In' came and kind of focused the attention on how crazy it all was."

Numerous catch phrases quickly became part of the cultural vernacular including "Sock it to me!," "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls," "Direct from beautiful downtown Burbank," "verrry interesting" and "the flying fickle finger of fate." The phenomenal success of the series even led the show's stars, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, to appear in the now-forgotten 1969 feature comedy "The Maltese Bippy," inspired in part by yet another of the series' signature phrases: "You bet your bippy."

Equally familiar was Owens' announcer, always seen with one hand cupped over his ear. It originated when the radio veteran, who is currently heard on "fabulous 570" (KLAC-AM) went to lunch at the Smoke House Restaurant in Burbank with Schlatter, fellow producer Ed Friendly and others. "We went into the men's bathroom to wash up and because of the acoustic tile on the ceiling in the men's bathroom, I put my hand over my ear and said, 'My, the acoustics are good in here,' like the old radio announcers," Owens recalls. "I never announced that way, but the guys from the 1940s and '50s who did live dance-band remotes would always put their hand over their ear so they could hear beyond the music that was playing in the background. George said, 'That's what you are going to do.' "

A bit was born.

Among the favorite characters on the show were Buzzi's plain Jane Gladys Ormfby who regularly met on the park bench with Johnson's dirty old man, Tyrone F. Horneigh, Tomlin's acerbic telephone operator Ernestine; Sues' "Big Al" sportscaster; Owens' perfect-pitched announcer; and Hawn's giggling dumb blond.

During its run, some of Hollywood's biggest and brightest appeared as guest stars or in cameos, including John Wayne, Bob Hope and Jack Lemmon. Sammy Davis Jr. helped propel the show into the upper reaches of the Nielsen ratings when he vamped through his "Here Come Da Judge" routine early in the show's run.

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