This show was a kind of staple of my earliest entertainment memories. A vaudeville kaleidoscope of fast jokes (often puns or really bad one-liners), pop-culture references, and short sketches run rapid-fire against the more staid and bland Rowan and Martin straight man, goofy man stand-up. The demographic feels blue-collar. The political jokes are reserved mostly for silly impressions of LBJ, or references to the war in Vietnam, but little in the way of criticism or substance of any kind. Instead a larking kind of nonsense world behind a paisley wall with doors that opened up to reveal the players. Famously Nixon was one of these players when he ran for president.
The seasons featured many guest stars from John Wayne to Rich Little, Tony Curtis to Lilly Tomlin and Flip Wilson to Tim Conway and Cher (playing a Native American badly). It was a kind of mash-up of styles and faces, most of whom would career on TV well into the 70s and beyond. A regularly occurring bit was Sock It To Me which generally had Judy Carne open against a blank backdrop while trying to avoid some kind of impending assault from a gloved fist to beach balls bounced off her or water tossed on her. The bit then quickly ran through a number of people simply saying “sock it to me”. It is something that has been stuck in my memory since childhood and has actually never really seemed to mean anything at all. It’s simply a gag. Another aspect of the show was a kind of portrayal of protestors/demonstrators as regularly ditzy and or confused. They might be marching about in a kind of matching pastel of rainbow colors carrying signs with nonsense sayings on them. The gag undoubtedly meant to appeal to a careless working-class attitude about youth culture and acceptance of status quo. Every so often a WW2 Nazi helmeted Artie Johnson would rise behind a bush and say, “Veddy inderestink.” And that would be enough for a recurring gag.
On the other hand the gang would sometimes sing satirical pieces that lampooned the wealthy, but it might be followed up with tasteless gags about cross-dressing, or gender reversal (but even Monty Python leaned on that a bit). Women’s Lib issues were dealt with in equally paltry and fluffy-headed manner, as the ladies (Jo anne Worley to Ruth Buzzi) unable to fairly divide a check at a restaurant. All in all I found the humor weak, but prime-time joke shows are kind of stuck in that dynamic, especially in the mid to late sixties where we are much less likely to be able to express dissatisfaction with American socio-economic structure or prevalent attitudes regarding religion or other authority figures. Especially when contrasted to The Smothers Brothers Show which quickly turned into Tommy Smothers’s platform for railing against censorship and other authority. They were free to have actual music segments, which sadly on Laugh-in are pop songs played to silent films made by the players on the show– early music video.
Two stand out jokes from early in the first season deserve attention. In one segment, a newscast that purports to provide past present and future news, jumps twenty years into the future to the year 1988 and goofs on a then President Ronald Reagan! Well done! Despite all the guffaws from the audience and canned laughter, their writing team nailed it. The second had Ken Berry (of old F-Troop fame) holding up a pistol and saying something about how the invention of this device would change the course of history, and with a clumsy flip, he sets it to his ear and takes a call! Clever in our age of phone cameras. Has no one invented a pistol app?
I’m not sure if I’ll manage to scour through many more episodes but it’s been eye opening returning to the popculture of my baby years, and seeing it through adult eyes. It was Judy Carne dancing to the psychedelic music with the phrases painted on her bikini clad body, I remembered Goldie Hawn. And Tiny Tim really was playing that ukulele as he sang public domain numbers in falsetto (Yeesh).
Free on Prime! The show ran for six seasons- which in those days meant like 140 shows total. many players lasted for dozens or even ninety or more shows (Artie Johnson), but none other than the two hosts lasted for as many as Rhode Island’s own Ruth Buzzi who was there for basically all of it. What a trooper.