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They Socked It To Us

Published: January 19, 2013

Laugh-Ins’ other popular one-liners included “You bet your sweet bippy,” “Here come da judge,” “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall’s,” “Blow in my ear and I’ll follow you anywhere,” “Verrry interesting” and “Want a Walnetto?” While not funny in themselves, they became funny by repetition, both by the cast and by your classmates in junior high school.

So what made Laugh-In so popular?

Partly it was the right material for the times. Laugh-In captured the irreverent, rebellious, unpredictable spirit of the day. It presented itself as both silly and cool. It didn’t take itself seriously and never tried to be polished; the comedians often laughed over each other’s lines, and anyone who muffed a joke could always start over while the cameras kept rolling. Somehow that just seemed to make it funnier. Likewise, no one seemed to care if a gag wasn’t working. The cast just kept firing away, knowing that eventually one joke would be a hit. (You can see echoes of that approach today on the Letterman and plenty of other late-night shows.) More importantly, the entire cast seemed to be caught up in an infectious spirit of fun.

Another chief attraction was the subject matter of many of the jokes. By wrapping it around obscure, offbeat gags, Rowan and Martin managed to slip controversial material about war, drugs, and sex past the network sponsors. It’s tame stuff now, but was daring, even shocking, then.

If you watch clips of Laugh-In on YouTube today, the show can seem quite dated. But look beyond the ‘mod’ sets, the Nehru jackets, and Jo Anne Worley’s feather boa, and you’ll see the birth of modern TV humor. Laugh-In proved so influential that you now see very little of the comedy it displaced: the slick, nightclub comedians who developed their material in Catskill resorts and honed it in Vegas. Instead, nearly all sitcoms and variety shows rely on the offbeat, screwball, earthy humor promoted by Rowan and Martin. Look again and you’ll also see a strong family resemblance to another NBC program. Laugh-In’s opener, offbeat sketches, irreverent humor, satires on commercials, and humorous recap of the week’s news has kept Saturday Night Live going for 18 years.

Click here to read “Where TV Comedy Is At” by Lawrence Dietz from The Saturday Evening Post archive.

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