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Behind the laughter at 'Laugh-In'

Several key players look back at the groundbreaking 1967-73 comedy series, which will be honored with a PBS special.

March 07, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • "Laugh-In" creator George Schlatter, center, is flanked by stars of the hit 1960s comedy show, from left: Jo Anne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin and Gary Owens. They were recently reunited in Pasadena.
"Laugh-In" creator George Schlatter, center, is flanked by… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

"Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," one of the most influential TV series of the swinging '60s and early '70s," began as an hourlong special on Sept. 9, 1967. Four months later it was a weekly series, replacing "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." It quickly captured the nation's funny bone and became the No. 1 show. The comedy was a cross between old-fashioned slapstick zaniness and modern, cutting-edge political satire.

Hosted by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin — Rowan was the straight man and Martin the clueless womanizer — the show featured a cast of zanies: Goldie Hawn, who would giggle and flub her lines; Judy Carne, known as the "Sock It to Me" girl; Lily Tomlin, who became a sensation as Ernestine the telephone operator; Ruth Buzzi, best known for her spinster, Gladys Ormphby; Arte Johnson, whose German soldier would peer from behind a palm plant and say, "Veery interesting"; Henry Gibson, who uttered inane hippie verse as "The Poet"; Jo Anne Worley, a feather-boa-wearing loudmouth; and Gary Owens, the pitch-perfect announcer who told the audience that the show was coming from "beautiful downtown Burbank." The show also made a star out of the long-haired eccentric falsetto singer Tiny Tim.

The catch phrases became part of the lexicon: "You bet your bippy," "Sock it to me," "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls," and "Here come da judge." Among the countless guest stars were Sammy Davis Jr., John Wayne (who wore a bunny costume), Peter Lawford and James Garner. Even presidential nominee Richard Nixon came on the show before the 1968 election to proclaim "Sock it to me?" Politicos believe his appearance helped him win the election.

PBS is celebrating the landmark comedy series with a one-hour special, "The Best of Laugh-In," airing at 9 p.m. Monday on KOCE-TV that's filled with clips and reminisces by the cast.

Recently, creator-executive producer George Schlatter, 78; Buzzi, 74; Tomlin, 71; Worley, 73; and Owens, 74, reunited to discuss the show.

The beginnings

George Schlatter: I had been doing the Grammy Awards — it was called "Best on Record." It wasn't a full-out awards show. I said, "I don't want to do this anymore." They said if I did it one more year, they would let me do one show my way.

NBC said they would buy the show if I had a host, but the show was not designed for a host. It was designed for this group of characters. I had worked with Rowan and Martin for a long time in nightclubs. They did a funny nightclub act. We put them in to emcee the show.

Ruth Buzzi: So the first time I worked with you, it was just a one-hour special?

GS: It just seemed like two hours! It was tough enough to sell them one hour, let alone two hours.

Lily Tomlin: Did you get really great ratings on the special?

GS: The press liked the special, but it did no ratings because nobody knew anybody on the show. They said they would do it if they could do it for no money and they were going to put it opposite Lucille Ball and "Gunsmoke." So they put it out. About the fourth show, Sammy Davis walked in and everything exploded. He was an old friend. I talked to him to come over and do the show.

LT: George, he leaned on people.

GS: That's a bit much.

Joanne Worley: That is what it was like with George; he threatened and leaned.

Gary Owens: Sammy Davis Jr. was a very good trick artist with the pistol. Do you know who bought Sammy Davis Jr.'s gun collection? Clint Eastwood.

Richard Nixon, and John Wayne in a bunny suit

GS: Producer Paul Keyes was Nixon's closest friend. He asked him.

GO: He was his speechwriter.

GS: He was his joke writer! How is that for a credit? It took six takes to get it right so Nixon didn't look mean. No presidential candidate had done any show like that. John Wayne was also friends with Paul Keyes.

RB: John Wayne loved us so much. He would do just about anything you would ask him to do. He did one sketch where he was Gladys' husband. They had me wearing a little bitty cowboy hat and little bitty guns. I had to hit him, and I kept hitting him waiting for them to say cut. I turned around and said, "Please, I don't want to hit this man." It was so funny they put [the aside] in the show.

Fooling the censors

GS: You thought you saw more than you did, and it was so fast you weren't aware of what we really said. Sometimes we weren't aware of what we were saying.

JW: I didn't like doing the bathing suit with the writing on the body because I don't have a perfect body. So that's why I started wearing feathers to cover my body. But you [Buzzi] did it great — the dancing.

RB: I knew I didn't have a great body.

LT: I didn't come on to until the third season, but I was such a feminist. I said, "I am not doing the bikini dancing." I [finally] said, "OK — I will do the photo shoot in a bikini, but I am not going to do it on the show."

Tiny Tim

JW: Tiny Tim took several baths; he took several showers. I think he may have washed his body but not his hair.

GS: One time we filled his dressing room with flowers and he came out crying because he said we had killed the flowers!

susan.king@latimes.com

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