Satirizes Social Upheaval

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a fast-paced, at times provocative comedy variety show, fully exploited the medium of television to portray and satirize cultural and social upheavals occurring in American society.

Summary of Event

By the early 1960’s, the comedy team of Dan Rowan (a former used-car dealer, the straight man) and Dick Martin (a former bartender, the happy-go-lucky, “swinging” member of the duo), was headlining in Miami and Las Vegas lounges. After several guest appearances on variety shows, they broke into television programming by securing high summer replacement ratings while filling in for Dean Martin on his variety show in 1966; this success led to various network offers to star in situation comedies. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (television program)[Rowan and Martins Laugh In]
United States;counterculture
[kw]Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In Satirizes Social Upheaval (Sept. 9, 1967-May 14, 1973)
[kw]Social Upheaval, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In Satirizes (Sept. 9, 1967-May 14, 1973)
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (television program)[Rowan and Martins Laugh In]
United States;counterculture
[g]North America;Sept. 9, 1967-May 14, 1973: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In Satirizes Social Upheaval[09430]
[g]United States;Sept. 9, 1967-May 14, 1973: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In Satirizes Social Upheaval[09430]
[c]Radio and television;Sept. 9, 1967-May 14, 1973: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In Satirizes Social Upheaval[09430]
Rowan, Dan
Martin, Dick
Schlatter, George
Friendly, Edwin
Carne, Judy
Johnson, Arte
Hawn, Goldie
Buzzi, Ruth
Gibson, Henry
Worley, Jo Anne

Rowan and Martin, however, wanted to push television comedy in a new direction, breaking out of both the situation-comedy format and the seat-in-a-comedy-club vantage of variety shows; instead, they wanted to develop something they referred to as a “cartoon humor approach.” When the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;comedies (NBC) offered them a comedy-variety hour special in the autumn of 1967, the network put up $250,000, secured Timex watches as a sponsor, and gave the duo free rein. After discussing their plans with George Schlatter, an enthusiastic, visionary producer also eager to try television-oriented visual techniques that would combine slapstick and social relevance, the three agreed to work together.

That first Laugh-In special aired September 9, 1967, receiving critical praise and ratings that pleased NBC. That network then moved on an option to develop the concept into a regular series, and soon Ed Friendly, a former vice president at NBC, and Schlatter had combined to form Schlatter-Friendly Productions Schlatter-Friendly Productions[Schlatter Friendly Productions] to produce such a series. Although unsure about the sustainability of a Laugh-In show on a regular basis, Rowan and Martin agreed, and production ensued.

The series slipped into the NBC lineup in January, 1968, replacing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Competition from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Monday nights was certainly formidable; the show’s time slot overlapped with both The Love Lucy and Gunsmoke on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), at the time television’s two top-rated shows. Nevertheless, American society responded quite favorably to Laugh-In; its subject matter, its style, its speed all spoke to current cultural concerns and needs. Laugh-In quickly climbed in the ratings, and it closed the season with the last four shows all in first place. It then garnered four Emmy Awards Emmy Awards and was acclaimed as the most successful program of the season. In a reflection of the show’s popularity and influence, Time devoted a cover story to the phenomenon of the show in October, 1968, and Laugh-In’s dominance continued through 1970.

Along with Rowan, Martin, and Schlatter, others integral to the creation of the program included head writer Paul W. Keyes Keyes, Paul W. and his colleagues, film editor Art Schneider Schneider, Art and his crew, and the zany cast of regulars. The cast changed over time, more so as success brought options to members of the troupe, but the original comedic cast included Judy Carne, Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley, Henry Gibson, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, and Gary Owens Owens, Gary (as the announcer). Later additions and replacements included Dave Madden, Teresa Graves, Alan Sues, Johnny Brown, Pamela Rogers, Richard Dawson, and Lily Tomlin. For the 1969-1970 season, Schlatter-Friendly chose Mark Warren Warren, Mark , a young African American, to take over directing responsibilities full time; the move was a step forward in breaking racial barriers in the American television industry.

What made Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In such a hit was its blend of personalities, the incredible number of jokes per episode, the editing style, the eclectic use of guest stars, and the popularity of some running gags and sequences combined to tickle America’s funny bone, at a time when stress and discord concerning American involvement in the Vietnam War were running high.

Approximately 250 gags, skillfully edited together into a fifty-three-minute show, appeared in each of the 124 episodes produced over the five-year run of Laugh-In. A large portion of the audience fell into the twelve-to-eighteen age bracket. This generation, raised on television, found the sensory overload of the show’s rapid-fire combination of skits, slapstick, blackouts, and one-liners quite stimulating. Some edited cuts were as brief as one eighth of a second—a closeup of graffiti on a go-go dancer, a funny face distorted by a camera lens.

The range of cameos was also impressive. Appearing on Laugh-In grew quite stylish in the late 1960’s; guest stars included Jack Benny, Marcel Marceau, Truman Capote, John Wayne, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, and Dinah Shore. Sammy Davis Davis, Sammy, Jr. , Jr., in a tribute to Pigmeat Markham’s old vaudeville sketch, chanted “here comes de judge,” and America joined the chant. Other catch phrases that entered the national idiom via Laugh-In included Johnson’s “verrry interesting,” Carne’s “Sock it to me!” (a running gag that developed some sophisticated bits of punnery), the censor-testing “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls,” and “You bet your sweet bippy,” the exact meaning of which was left to the viewer’s imagination. Popular recurring motifs included a psychedelic “joke wall,” parodies of production numbers to introduce a satirical news segment, and a cocktail-party setting for stinging bits of provocative, topical humor.

Keyes took over as executive producer for the fourth and fifth seasons. During its prime-time run, Laugh-In spawned several merchandising spinoffs: a Laugh-In magazine selling 300,000 copies a month, a Laugh-In record album, a syndicated comic strip, and assorted products such as “sock-it-to-me” T-shirts and paperback jokebooks. The symbiotic relationship between product merchandising and television series would intensify in the decades to come.

The original freshness gone, the ratings down, on May 14, 1973, NBC canceled Laugh-In. Nevertheless, the show’s vividly moving colors, its experimentation with cutting and sudden scene shifts, and its barrier-breaking thrusts in making fun of religion, politics, and traditional mores set it apart as one of the most distinctive programs of its era.


The quick one-liner, fade to black, was pioneered by Ernie Kovacs Kovacs, Ernie in the early years of television. The creators of Laugh-In made such speedy delivery the raison d’être for the program. As an art form, television now could offer a young generation reared on the medium home entertainment with countercultural undertones that could only be conveyed in a finely edited, studio-prepackaged process. An argument could be made that the technological auditory and visual techniques Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters experimented with in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The (Wolfe) (1969) were, via Laugh-In, homogenized, commodified, and served to middle America by the National Broadcasting Company. America responded favorably, which hastened the inevitable production of some copycat programming.

One spin-off, a thirty-minute comedy game show entitled Letters to Laugh-In, Letters to Laugh-In (television program)[Letters to Laugh In] appeared on NBC from September 29, 1969, to March 3, 1970. Gary Owens hosted this program, on which four guest celebrities took turns telling jokes submitted by home viewers. A panel of studio audience judges decided which jokes were successes or flops, the booby prize being a seven-day vacation in “beautiful downtown Burbank.”

Programs that tried to simulate Laugh-In’s fast-firing style and chaotic mirth, duplicating its structure and format, did not fare well. You Can’t Do That on Television!, You Can’t Do That on Television! (television program)[You Cant Do That on Television] a pilot for an American Broadcasting Company (ABC) series in the fall of 1968, shocked but failed to get the laughs. Schlatter and Friendly tried to re-create their success at NBC by generating an even hipper thirty-minute version of the show for ABC in February, 1969. Entitled Turn-On, Turn-On (television program)[Turn On] it was canceled after one airing: 150 ABC affiliates registered protests, and the five other shows already taped were quickly abandoned.

Schlatter attempted to revive Laugh-In four years after its demise with a series of specials beginning September 5, 1977. Without the foundation of Rowan and Martin, in a post-Watergate era with disco on the rise, this version of the series did not click and soon petered out. The cast of virtual unknowns did include Wayland Flowers Flowers, Wayland and his outspoken puppet Madame, who would eventually secure their own television program.

One great strength of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was its diverse ensemble. Many of the cast used the program as a springboard to other jobs in television and film. Most reached the level of game-show celebrities and television guest stars. A few, such as Hawn and Tomlin, went on to become powerful megastars in Hollywood and on Broadway. Laugh-In’s comedic ensemble format also paved the way for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live (television program) That program, which debuted in October, 1975, gave former Laugh-In writer Lorne Michaels Michaels, Lorne the chance to test the limits of topical humor, pushing the barriers of acceptability in television comedy much as Laugh-In had.

Racy material was a legacy that Laugh-In left later television comedy. A contemporary program on CBS, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, received much attention for its run-ins with the network censors, but unlike Tommy and Dick Smothers, Rowan and Martin carefully avoided conveying political messages. As a result, both conservatives and liberals, hawks and doves were fair targets. People of all political ideologies seemed to enjoy Laugh-In. Both Dick Gregory and Richard M. Nixon were welcomed as guests; Martha Mitchell did telephone jokes on Laugh-In amid the Watergate debacle. Despite its political neutrality, the show was still outspoken; for example, Laugh-In predated a national shift in public consciousness against smoking. Rowan noted that “The U.S. Public Health Service requested a clip of our Salute to Smoking piece, saying that we did more for their cause than they have been able to do in two years.”

Laugh-In also questioned racism, ethnic stereotyping, and the function of mainstream religion. It flirted with allusions to drug use; a wide range of topics related to the sexual revolution managed to slip by the censors. Antecedents of the multiculturalism movement that began to gather steam in the 1980’s can be found on Laugh-In, both in practice and general philosophy. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, situation comedies would begin to confront many of these topics more readily, and late-night television more openly, but Laugh-In opened the door to such considerations.

The fast pace of delivery and film editing used to convey Laugh-In’s tried-and-true vaudeville skits, familiar old jokes, and classic bits of slapstick clearly foreshadowed a range of visual entertainment that would come. One genre of entertainment that has blossomed since the days of Laugh-In and that owes an artistic debt to the program for its blurring of imagery and its use of blackouts, quick editing, and very brief clips as a normative element—what Schlatter referred to as “energy film”—is the entire industry of music videos. Generations that have come of age on Music Television (MTV), many too young to remember Laugh-In, may not be aware that earlier viewers did not require rapidly changing, startling, often manipulative visual imagery to retain their interest. Laugh-In marked the beginning of the regular use of such techniques in television. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (television program)[Rowan and Martins Laugh In]
United States;counterculture

Further Reading

  • Archer, Jules. The Incredible Sixties: The Stormy Years That Changed America. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. Useful introduction to understanding the historical and social context of America that created a need that Laugh-In filled in popular culture. Eloquent. Organized in topical chapters concerning such topics as the Vietnam War, feminism, rock and roll, literature, civil rights, and the sexual revolution. No attention to function of television. List of suggested further readings. Index.
  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Gives a brief summary of the show’s history and provides detailed information on broadcast history and cast members. Useful for placing the show in a broader television context.
  • Erickson, Hal.“From Beautiful Downtown Burbank”: A Critical History of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” 1968-1973. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000. History of Laugh-In includes the story behind its creation, the years of its original broadcast, and its subsequent history in the cultural consciousness, as well as derivative shows that sprung up in its wake. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Rowan, Dan, and John D. MacDonald. A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald, 1967-1974. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Wonderful insights into Rowan’s vision of what Laugh-In should be; also conveys his exasperation and glee at various points in the production process. Permits one to assess how success affected Rowan in his personal life. Some readers may find MacDonald’s literary discussions extraneous. No index.

  • “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The Burbank Edition. New York: World, 1969. Certainly not scholarly, but accessible in many libraries. Consists of gags and jokes used in scripts from 1968 and the spring of 1969. Presented with still photography taken from the television program. Range of fonts, layouts, and colors intended to convey Laugh-In’s frenzied pace and zaniness.
  • Winship, Michael. Television. New York: Random House, 1988. Companion volume to eight-part public television series Television. Wonderfully illustrated. Divides study of history of television into a series of reviews and interviews with forty-three diverse individuals involved in the business. Especially relevant: chapter 7, “Variety,” which includes featured perspectives on George Schlatter and Dick Martin.

Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming

Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity

Golden Age of Television

The Honeymooners Defines Situation Comedy

Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming

The Dick Van Dyke Show Popularizes Situation Comedy

Monty Python’s Flying Circus Prompts a Cult Following

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Examines Women’s Roles