Humor’s a funny thing.
Consider the joke that makes us roar with laughter today. Twenty years from now, audiences may hear it without even cracking a smile. Or consider the comedians we think are side-splittingly funny. Few will still be thought amusing a generation or two from now. Who now remembers Ed Gallagher and Al Shean, the headliners of the 1910s? Or Joe Weber and Lew Fields, the top comedy team of the 1890s? Or the most popular comedians of the late 1960s, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin?
Actually, many baby boomers will still remember Rowan and Martin, although their TV comedy program has been off the air for 40 years. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In featured straight-man Rowan feeding lines to Martin, who responded with screwball responses that were a cross between Stan Laurel and Gracie Allen. This was followed by a wild assortment of unrelated skits and jokes. That formula may not sound so original now, but in 1969 and 1970, it was a breath of fresh air, and made Laugh-in the most watched program on television. It was, as a Post article put it, “Where TV Comedy Is At.”
Laugh-In was manic, relentless, and unlike anything we’d ever seen. It used nearly every comedy device known: short skits, one-liners, puns, slapstick, improvisation, and satire. Much of the show reworked ancient gags from vaudeville. It even offered a touch of burlesque with its leering close-ups of graffiti painted on bikinied women, most notably the then-sex-symbol Goldie Hawn whom the show turned into an overnight sensation.
But Laugh-In also brought innovations to TV comedy. It was the first show to fill an entire hour with comedy without a plot or theme. There were no singers, acrobats, or dance troupes—just comedians. And if the quality of jokes wasn’t all you might want, you couldn’t complain about the portion sizes. Laugh-In served at least 250 jokes every show.
We should add that these were not always ‘jokes’ in any traditional sense. One of the great laugh-getters—and we are not making this up—was the line “Sock it to me.” Just that. “Sock it to me.”
Celebrities lined up for the privilege of delivering that line on the show. Even Richard Nixon appeared in a September 1968 episode to speak it, though he stated it in the form of a question—“Sock it to me?” Hubert Humphrey, who was running against him for the presidency that year, declined an offer to go on camera and utter the phrase. And he lost the election, you’ll remember.