Sock It To Me! 'Laugh-In' Turns 50

Jan 22, 2018

"Laugh-In" is 50 years old? You bet your sweet bippy.

I can see by the old clock on the wall that "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" premiered as a regular series on NBC on Jan. 22, 1968, and became an overnight sensation.  You can look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.

The barrage of sight gags, one-liners, sketches, utter nonsense, guest stars and even knock-knock jokes was unlike anything seen before on television -- and instantly became a cultural phenomenon.

Rowan and Martin in NBC's photo for "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" from Feb. 2, 1968.
Credit NBC

Introduced from "beautiful downtown Burbank," Calif. by announcer Gary Owens, comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were ringmasters over a crazy comedy circus starring Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley, Lily Tomlin, Alan Sues and Dave Madden.

It was a different time. One of the biggest running jokes was actress Judy Carne (Burt Reynold's ex-wife) encouraging people to "sock it to me!"  Then she'd be doused with water or punched. The catchphrase caught on, and swept America.

Henry Gibson reading a poem on "Laugh-In" in October 1969.
Credit NBC

"Laugh-In" gave us Tomlin's sassy Ernestine the telephone operator ("Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"), Tomlin's 5-year-old Edith Ann in the huge rocking chair, Henry Gibson's wacky poems, and Arte Johnson's German soldier spying from the bushes. Verrrry interesting.

TV ratings were huge. "Laugh-In" was the No. 1 TV show for its first two full seasons  (1968-69 and 1969-70), leaping over "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza," "Family Affair" and "Here's Lucy."  The collapse was just as quick – to No. 13 in 1971-71, and No. 22 in 1971-72. "Laugh-In" fell out of the top 30 the next year and ended on May 14, 1973.

Adding to the multi-generational appeal was the wide range of  guests, from the current stars to the aging Hollywood veterans. You could see everyone from the Bee Gees, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Temptations to John Wayne, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle, Rita Hayworth, Bing Crosby, George Jessel, Danny Kaye, Jack Lemon, Peter Sellers, Dinah Shore, Rod Serling, Phil Silvers and Perry Como.  

Tons of comics got in on the laughs too: Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Tim Conway, Phyllis Diller, Buddy Hackett, Bob Hope, George Kirby, Jerry Lewis, Rich Little, Bob Newhart, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles  and Jonathan Winters. So did Kate Smith, Ringo Starr, Richard Nixon, Diana Ross, bandleader Guy Lombardo, Tiny Tim, the Monkees and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Singer Tiny Tim appeared several times on "Laugh-In"
Credit NBC

Rowan and Martin  appeared on NBC the previous September hosting a "Laugh-In,"  a one-hour test  episode with Carne, Gibson and guest stars Barbara Feldon ("Get Smart"), Ken Berry ("Mayberry RFD") and Pamela Austin. Original elements like the "Cocktail Party," "Mod Mod Mod Mod World," the "Joke Wall" and fake news reports carried over into the series debut in January. "Laugh-In Looks At The News" of the Present, the Future and the Past was introduced by song:  

What's the news across the nation?

We have got the information

In a way we hope will amuse you.

We just love to give you our views -- La Da-Da-Da! –

Ladies and Gents, Laugh-In looks at the news!

Rowan first would introduce "News of the Present" with Martin, "the man to whom the news wouldn't be the news without the news." In this clip, Rowan's "News of the Future" includes a joke about California Gov. Ronald Reagan being U.S. president 20 years in the future. He was right! 

So today I proudly present The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award to "Laugh-In" on its 50th anniversary.  [Sound of one person clapping]

Say good night, Dick.

Good night, Dick.