Friday, July 28, 2017

Memories of Laugh-In

Lily Tomlin, Barbara Sharma, Goldie Hawn,
Ruth Buzzi, and Nanci Phillips on
Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
In the early 1970s, George Schlatter, the producer of Roman and Martin's Laugh-In, appeared on the David Frost Show. When asked by Frost what it was like to put together that mad house on a weekly basis, Schlatter casually mentioned they did about 250 jokes a show. This fascinated my 10-year-old self and so on the very next Monday night (Laugh-In was on every Monday from 8 to 9), I counted every single gag and yes, it added up to 250. By this time the show had been on for a few years and I was old enough to stay up late and watch the entire thing. When it premiered in 1968, my bedtime was 8:30, so we would watch I Dream of Jeannie at 7:30 (this was before the FCC designated the 7:30-8PM slot solely for local stations) and then the first half-hour, usually just as they finished the News. The Decades Network is now rerunning episodes and it brought back a host of memories. It was my favorite show because you never knew what was going to happen next--a bucket of water, a specialty song, a cocktail party. I would often fantasize about being a regular performer, even going so far as to participate in my sixth grade talent show with my imitation of Lily Tomlin's Ernestine. My teacher even said she thought I did a good job and was far superior to the other "acts" which mostly consists of girls lip-synching to Motown records. At least I was using my own voice.

A few years after the show's cancellation in 1973 when I was working as a theater critic, I reviewed an Off-Off-Broadway comedy not unlike Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong about a troupe of incompetent actors in a cliche-ridden murder mystery full of onstage mishaps. (I can't remember the title) The cast list included Nanci Phillips and I thought "Wasn't she on Laugh-In?" Then I read her program bio and yes Laugh-in was in her credits. She was on for one season (1970-71) and did an impersonation of Jackie Onassis and a Southern belle during the cocktail party sequences. She usually played the attractive, smart young woman who wound up fending off Dick Martin's advances or giving in to them. The play was forgettable, but afterwards I waited in the lobby for Nanci to come out and told her how I remembered her from Laugh-In and even the bits she did. She was so flattered that she later asked me to lunch (my positive review didn't hurt either.) At lunch, she regaled me with stories of working with such stars as Bob Hope, Sid Caesar and Orson Welles. She explained they would record the musical numbers and them lip-synch them when taping (just like my fellow sixth graders miming along to The Temptations). It was exciting talking with a cast member of a beloved TV show. When I told her I wanted to be an actor, Nanci said one of the actors in her play would be leaving soon and I should audition to replace him. But nothing ever come of it.

According to imdb, Nanci passed away a few years ago and did not have any major credits since Laugh-In. There are few biographical details, so I do wonder what happened to her. The only photo I could find of her was a group shot with other cast members when Goldie Hawn returned as the guest star.

Ruth Buzzi as Gladys Orphmsby
In watching the reruns now, the humor is certainly dated but energy and zaniness remain. The 1960s and 70s casual sexism and homophobia are rampant. The two hosts' schtick consisted of Rowan's astonishment at Martin's goofiness and his swinging bachelor ways. The thing was Rowan was the more attractive, manly figure with his deep tan, moustache and pipe (he was constantly smoking) while Martin was a geeky jerk with an obvious toupee. In the cocktail party scene, Martin was constantly hitting on--and supposedly succeeding with--gorgeous women such as Nanci or Ann Elder who would probably not give him the time of day in real life. Women were objects of desire or ugly frumps such as Ruth Buzzi's pathetic Gladys Orphmsby. Her only power was the purse with which she assaulted her male detractors. At the same time Carol Burnett was turning the tables by using the stunning Lyle Waggoner as an object by treating him as the center of the female gaze. But Burnett moved beyond being a female Dick Martin when Waggoner left the show. Also she had a far greater range and was not limited to sex jokes.

Stereotypes of gay people were also prevalent with Alan Sues' swishy Big Al, Martin as the ballet-loving son of old-world poppa Zero Mostel in a guest turn, and Lily Tomlin as a butch bowler. (One wonders how Tomlin, a lesbian, felt having to play these negative images. Sues did have one brilliant departure from his queeny role in a funny musical number with Lee Grant where he played a Hefner-esque straight playboy.) But these gay images only played on cliches and did not get into the forbidden idea of people being attracted to the same sex. Laugh-In was supposed to be anti-Establishment in its style and form, but was pretty conventional in its content as opposed to the Smothers Brothers show which was really revolutionary and got cancelled after only three seasons. Paul Keys, one of the producers of Laugh-In, was an intimate friend of Nixon.

Dan Rowan and Dick Martin
Interestingly, Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin emerged as the biggest stars post-Laugh-In. Hawn rejected her giggly, dumb blonde image while Tomlin exponentially expanded her galaxy of sharply-observed characters. Arte Johnson, next to Tomlin probably the most versatile performer, disappeared soon after he left the show--I did see him in a Broadway revival of Candide once again donning many zany hats. But the majority of the cast retreated to summer stock, dinner theater, game shows, and the occasional guest shot on a sitcom. Rowan and Martin never had another on-camera success similar to their cultural dominance. Martin went on to direct many sitcoms including the Bob Newhart Show. Seeing them all again in reruns brings me back to sitting in front of the TV on Monday nights, begging my parents to stay up until the joke wall and to say Good Night, Dick.

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