Fifty years ago, a lightning-quick, anarchic comedy show featuring an unknown ensemble of up-and-coming comic actors, hosted by a flippant duo best known for livening up smoky nightclubs, made its debut on NBC.
And after its initial bow as TV special in 1967, "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" socked it to just about everyone and everything, quickly ordered to regular series status and causing a seismic sensation with widespread aftershocks that affected everything from the TV variety show format, the ramped-up speed in which audiences could process fast-paced punchlines, psychedelic set design and the overall comedy sensibility of an entire generation.
The series, which is now available in its entirety in a brand-new 38-DVD collection from TimeLife -- all 140 episodes, plus extras and more -– also made household names of its dapper and quick-quipping hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, and launched the careers of a slew of future on-camera stars and unconventional guests, including Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley, Tiny Tim and many more.
Executive producer George Schlatter was there at the very beginning, and he joined Moviefone to share his memories of seven seasons of the generationally defining series that had everyone – including a sitting U.S. president – stopping by to have it socked to them.
Moviefone: I can't think of many shows that were as game-changing and influential on both the television form and on the comedy genre as "Laugh-In." Tell me about when it first came into your life, and how you all decided to basically break all the rules as far as television shows were concerned.
George Schlatter: It's a long story. It was just something I had wanted to do, and it was a vacuum: there was nothing new going on in comedy or sitcoms. NBC wanted me to do another show that I didn't want to do. So I said I would do that if it they let me do one show my way, with no interference. They said okay, but they didn't really mean it.
So then we walked in with this group of unknowns. Nobody knew how the cast was -- Rowan & Martin worked nightclubs and they were a big nightclub act but they were no-names as far as television. So we put together this group of unusual people, and just started playing, having a good time. And writers that didn't have a niche to go into, so this unpredictable group of outcasts got together and had a good time. That's pretty much what we did.
No show had been edited in that fast-paced, gag-a-minute way before. You moved that series at an incredible pace. Was that hard to convince the networks that the audience was going to respond to something that moved so incredibly fast for the time?
They didn't like it at first. They thought it was too fast. They thought nobody could understand it. I said, well, you laughed. The audience is brighter than you are. At that point, the show went on the air on Monday night. Monday night at eight o'clock. It was against "[The] Lucy [Show]" and "Gunsmoke," and they didn't have anything else to put in there that they believed in, and this show was cheap [Laughs] and they put it in there until they could get a real show ready.
When they looked at the first cut, they said, "This is crazy! Nobody will understand this." I said, "It's the biggest thing in Europe." "What do you mean?" I said, "It's called comedy vérité." And I made it up, right? They said, "Really?" I said, "It's huge in Europe." If something was a hit some place, then they think it'll work here. So they put it on the air.
Nothing happened for about three or four weeks. Then Sammy Davis, Jr., came on. We started doing jokes about [vaudeville comedian] Pigmeat Markham doing [his catchphrase] "Here comes the Judge!" Sammy did "Here comes the Judge," we put it into the next show, and that week when the Supreme Court came in, somebody in the back of the courtroom said, "Here comes Judge!" And the courtroom cracked up, and that became largely responsible for our immediate success.
To beat TV institutions like "Gunsmoke" and Lucille Ball, you had to know right away that you tapped into a specific generational audience. You'd found something that spoke to that Baby Boom generation in particular. What did that mean to your staff when you realized, "Oh, we've found gold for this particular generation?"
It didn't mean much then because we were under such pressure. We were living under a rock. We were working 24 hours a day, and we developed the editing techniques that didn't exist. We didn't have the Avid [editing software], so everything had to be physically spliced. But it was a group of outcasts just having a really good time.
A woman by the name of Carolyn Raskin developed many of the editing techniques. We didn't have timecode or anything, so we put it on the air, and it was a big huge playpen for outcast adults. Then we rounded up this cast. How lucky can you get to find Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, and a group of wonderfully talented people?
The political problems then are the same as they are now. The reason I think the show now will work, the reason I think that the DVDs will be welcome, is because we haven't fixed anything. The same problems – you can't believe it's the same: an unpopular war, an unpopular president, political unrest, gay rights – all the same problems we had then, we have now, so it's very contemporary.
And you got away with a lot political humor that previously tripped up some other shows, like "The Smothers Brothers." Why do you think you were able to finesse it just so to get that stuff on the air and not get a big backlash?
My own personal charm! No, the fact that it was so fast, that while they were worrying about one thing, we were doing something else. By the time we got to them saying no, we had already done it. It was an adventure. It was something nobody had ever done before.
My wife Jolene [Brand] did "The Ernie Kovacs Show." It had a large effect on me. My early life in saloons had a large effect because I worked with all of the comics. And I was bored. I was doing "The Dinah Shore Chevy Show" and the Judy Garland series, the series and it was all the same thing.
We found this group of very talented young people. So we got them all in, and at that point, because as I said, the network was desperate, nobody auditioned. We just hired them. And they came in and looked at these people and said, "What the hell are you doing?" I said, "I don't know, but we're having fun." That's what went on the air.
What were some of the cues for you that you didn't just have a hit show, but you had a full-on pop culture phenomenon? I think maybe only "Batman" prior to that had had that level of so instantly and deeply permeating the pop culture. When did you guys get a sense that this is something special?
It helped because we didn't know it. We knew there was a reaction to it, but we were busy fighting the network, and fighting the sensors, fighting the sponsors, who all said, "This is not a television show." It snuck up on them. By the time it was a hit – eventually, got up to a 50 [ratings] share! Well, I'm arrogant now, but gee, 50 years ago? Forget about it!
We went on and kept doing it. When the first season was over, we got out of the box where you go out and breathe the air, and roam around the streets, we found out what a big hit it was. We were having a good time. That doesn't sound like an adult show business, but that's what it was.
I can't think of another show before -- maybe since with "Saturday Night Live" -- that had the amount of catch phrases that were instantly adopted by people all over the country. That must have been a very surreal/rewarding kind of experience to see that happen.
Yes, it was. Lorne Michaels was one of the writers in that second year, and he learned a lot. "Saturday Night Live" was at 11:30 at night. We were on at eight o'clock. So what we were doing was really, truly revolutionary.
A man by the name of Herb Schlosser, who was head of NBC, they used to go to him and say, "Herb, George won't listen, he won't cut this, he won't cut that, and he won't cut this." So Herb Schlosser said, "Well, I'll talk to him." Herb called me and said, "Do just what you're doing," and we did, and that was what became the show
We're now going to release all 140 episodes on Amazon, and It's interesting because those same shows now feel like we just taped them yesterday, because it's the same problems, the same things.
When you're that of-the-moment, was there a lot of pressure to keep the show fresh? Because people can sometimes wander away from these sensation-type series, but you guys managed to stay on the air for several seasons.
We would stay on for seven. Partially given my own minimal attention span, it didn't become boring. We kept bringing in new people. In one room you have Goldie and Lily and Ruth and Jo Anne and all of that, all coming in with their own ideas. We had this group of outcast writers that were not writing for anything else. They were not sitcom writers or variety show writers. They were just comedy writers. So it was an adventure, alright.