Before there was Saturday Night Live, there was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Hilarious, topical, sometimes controversial, the comedy program began as a one-time special, and eventually racked up a six season run. Starring an eclectic group of individuals, some of whom built memorable careers, and featuring a bevy of terrific guest stars, recurring sketches and one-liners filled the 140 episodes, some of which did not air until well after cancellation. Now, the entire Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series is available on DVD from Time Life, and most of the episodes getting their first-ever home release.
Launching as a series in January 1968, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was over long before I was born, fifteen years later. But the reputation and jokes lived on, permeating pop culture. Of course I’d seen the clips of Richard Nixon calling out “Sock it to me,” Goldie Hawn go-go dancing, and Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the annoying telephone operator. Having long been a fan of late-night comedy, this was a series I was very curious about, but never sure where to get a hold of it until this set came along.
The number of talented people the series attracted is amazing. Besides Hawn (The First Wives Club) and Tomlin (Grace & Frankie), regulars included Larry Hovis (Hogan’s Heroes), Eileen Brennan (Clue), Richard Dawson (Hogan’s Heroes), Henry Gibson (Boston Legal), Dave Madden (The Partridge Family), and Johnny Brown (Good Times). Perhaps more impressive were the guests stars, with Flip Wilson, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Cher, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Carol Channing, Sammy Davis Jr., Rock Hudson, Dinah Shore, Tim Conway, James Garner, Vincent Price, Buddy Hackett, Michael Caine, Charles Nelson Reilly, Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Rod Serling, Liberace, and Lena Horne being just some of the folks who returned multiple times for guest spots.
As much as it’s fun to watch a bunch of familiar, famous faces parade through the series, Laugh In‘s real staying power is in the writing. Dan Rowan’s straight man to Dick Martin goofy comic inhabit first segment, leading to mod dance parties, “Laugh-In Looks at the News” (a predecessor of Weekend Update), and though to applause at the end that extends long into the closing credits.
The series has a very specific, signature style with regular inserts and asides. Some strong, some less so, they impart a unique comic tone to the series. Characters like Wolfgang the German Soldier, Gladys Ormphby, Edith Ann, the sock-it-to-me girl, Uncle Al, and more, are memorable to anyone who has seen them. Yes, it is absolutely a product of its era, and the hippie, zany sensibilities are ever-present. But it’s also genuinely funny something that can still make us laugh many decades later. Whether you were a fan back then, or just have an interest in classic television, this is a good DVD set.
The just-released box contains thirty-eight discs, including the pilot special and all the regular episodes, complete and uncut. The show has been remastered, and while it shows its age, it looks pretty good, much better than any clip I’ve seen from it. It’s certainly not high-def ready, but what do you expect from a show so old? The point is, there isn’t the graininess that distracts, and it’s OK if Laugh-In shows its age a little. It’s earned it.
Six hours of bonus features round out the set. The most sizable are a 25th anniversary cast reunion (filmed way back in 2001) and a booklet full of some of the best quotes from the show. There are interviews, bloopers (which aren’t always as funny as the written jokes, but still good to include), a tribute to producer George Schlatter (the late clapper), Schlatter’s Emmy speech, and more. About 100 minutes of it are on a special bonus DVD, while the rest (mainly cast interviews) are scattered among the various season sets, each packaged separately in the larger box.
Personally, I find this DVD set right up my alley, and I enjoyed it immensely. I know it’s not for everyone, but if you like classic or late night comedy, it’s a must-see. And I suspect a great many other people, who aren’t particularly into those things, would find it entertaining, too. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, available now from Time Life, comes with my highest recommendation.