Follow TV Tropes


Series / Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

Go To
The cast during the second season (1968-69).note 

Gary Owens: This show has been prerecorded to give the cast a chance to get away.
Wolfgang: Veeeeery eenteresting, but they'll never make it across the border. *laughs maniacally*

An iconic, anarchic hour-long Sketch Comedy series broadcast on NBC from 1968 to 1973. Created by George Schlatter, it broke new ground in television comedy with its rapid-fire jokes, outrageous characters and — for the time — utterly insane and over-the-top humor. The show's ostensible hosts were the urbane Dan Rowan and the somewhat dim Dick Martin, but this tuxedo-clad pair were frequently outshone by the platoon of seeming lunatics who made up the rest of the cast.

The show is best known today for the future stars whose careers it launched — Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Tiny Tim, Henry Gibson, Ruth Buzzi, Arte Johnson, Pat Paulson, and Jo Anne Worley among others — and the incredible comic moments it managed to pull off (such as then-presidential-candidate Richard Nixon asking America to "sock it to him"). But until the birth of Saturday Night Live several years later, Laugh-In was the touchstone of modern American humor. (SNL emulated it, in some ways — unsurprisingly, because many Laugh-In writers later worked on SNL, including the later show's creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels.) It was possibly the single largest source of Running Gags, Catch Phrases and other pop culture contributions during the middle of the 20th century, and developed during its surprisingly brief run an utterly unique and frenetically subversive style that carried them directly into the subconscious of the viewer. Because of its wild and unpredictable yet intelligent style, it was also often very successful at getting surprisingly risque material (for the era) on the air — usually by setting up apparently-innocent situations where the viewer's mind would fill in the blanks with suitably dirty punchlines and speculations of their own.


Regular features of the show included Rowan and Martin's opening "monologue", Gladys and Tyrone the Dirty Old Man on the park bench, the "cocktail party", the not-quite adventures of the Farkle family, "Laugh-In News" and the end-of-episode "joke wall". In addition to the videotaped studio sketches, there were also a large number of filmed bits, most of them running gags, including most famously Judy Carne and Goldie Hawn go-go dancing, and the raincoated man on his tricycle. Every episode had a celebrity Special Guest who participated in the anarchic goings-on, usually with gleeful good humor. Certain stars, like Tiny Tim, were particular favorites and were brought back episode after episode until they were almost members of the main cast themselves. Video clips of previous guest stars would also frequently show up on later shows as punchlines, setups or simple Reaction Shots.


Part of the show's charm was due to Schlatter's tendency not to do retakes, leaving bungles, bloopers and cast crack-ups in place for broadcast. (In fact, he often deliberately provoked Goldie Hawn into fits of giggles on-camera just so he could film and broadcast her laughing.) This gave the impression of a show that was often completely out of control and on which almost anything could happen. The often psychedelic set design just added to it, although Laugh-In never did any kind of overt hard drug humor (although most episodes had a coy marijuana one-liner or two).

George Schlatter attempted to recreate the success of Laugh-In for ABC by cloning it into a show called Turn-On. However, the first episode of Turn-On was met with so many complaints about its quality that it was either banned from airing, cancelled fifteen minutes into the episode (The Other Wiki says the last sketch that aired was one where a woman violently shakes a vending machine that dispenses birth control pills), or aired in full and then never again. (Viewers also complained about flashing animations and rapid-fire visual switching — which some of Sesame Street's animations normalized and made commonplace a few months later.)

Before the 1970s were over, Schlatter would try once again with a proper revival of Laugh-In. It too, failed, but even so, it proved that Schlatter's eye for comedic talent had in no way diminished — the cast he assembled for the revival included several performers who later went on to stardom or superstardom, including a then-unknown Robin Williams.

Laugh-In's influence is extremely obvious in such shows as Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and You Can't Do That on Television.

In 1969, Brown & Bigelow made a deck of Laugh-In playing cards, and NBC had a short-lived daytime Panel Game, Letters to Laugh-In. There were also a syndicated Newspaper Comic based on the show and a Hasbro Board Game called "Squeeze Your Bippy".

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In provides examples of:

  • Adorkable: Henry Gibson's persona on the show, especially during his poetry recitals.
  • Alliterative Family: Frank Farkel and his wife, Fanny, and their kids (some alliterated, some rhymed, and some were just puns) - Sparkle (and her sometimes twin Charcoal) Farkel, twins Simon & Gar Farkel, Mark Farkel, Fritz, Flicker, and Fred Farkel.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Alan Sues' characters often fit into this slot, so to speak.
  • Animated Adaptation: Baggy Pants And The Nitwits featured as its titular "Nitwits" animated versions of Gladys and Tyrone — the latter with super powers (specifically, a magic sentient cane). They were remade into a husband-and-wife pair.
  • Berserk Button: Jo Anne Worley doesn't like to hear chicken jokes.
  • Blackface: Done at one point in season two's 25th episode and only for the news portion by Judy, Goldie, Jo Anne and Ruth, with Chelsea doing equally whiteface with the singing portion with Tony Curtis.
  • Brainless Beauty: Goldie Hawn and Pamela Rodgers were both very attractive and well-known for their airheadedness; Goldie tended toward general ditziness while Pamela often made vapid sexual jokes.
  • Butt-Monkey: Judy Carne, so very much. It's usually when she utters any variant of the words "sock it to me", which usually led to her getting doused with water or going through trap doors.
    • Arte Johnson, from season one's end onwards and after Tyrone F. Horneigh and Wolfgang became prominent.
    • Henry Gibson became this in later seasons, but he gave about as good as he received it, taking it all in stride. He even did this a few times to Ruth Buzzi with a bucket of water in season one while she was in a piano sketch.
    • Even Gary Owens wasn't immune to this. He shockingly got a sock-it clock nearly pummeling him as well as a dousing of water, a trap door and a balloon mallet in season two.
  • Call-Back: SO MANY!
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Oh boy, Tiny Tim! Though he proved he was Smarter Than You Look coupled with Beneath Notice.
    • Goldie herself also vacillated between this trope and The Ditz.
  • Catchphrase: The show had several:
    • "Sock it to me!"
    • "You bet your sweet bippy."
    • "Here come da judge! Here come da judge!"
    • "Is that a Chicken Joke?!"
    • "Veeeeerrrrrrry eeenteresting...but stupid!"
    • "And that's the truth! (*raspberry*)"
    • "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!"
    • "Blow in my ear and I'll follow you anywhere."
    • "Beautiful downtown Burbank."
    • "Here comes the big finish folks!"
    • "Which Henny Youngman?" "Oh THAT Henny Youngman!"
    • "Say Goodnight, Dick." "Goodnight, Dick."
  • Commuting on a Bus: Judy Carne was absolutely tired of being the "sock it to me" girl due to the constant splashings and trap doors she endured and with some of the more irascible fans doing this to her off-screen as well, declared it "one big, bloody bore" and originally leaving after season two but guested through season three, although her appearances in Laugh-In became less and less frequent, especially once Lily Tomlin became a core cast member.
  • Corpsing: Though most everyone really and it was all left in, special mention should be made of Goldie Hawn who practically made it her trademark while coupled with becoming The Ditz. The Joke Wall was also as well known for people cracking up trying to deliver their jokes and messing with each other as the jokes themselves.
    • In a rare instance, Dan Rowan corpsed near the end of season two upon Arte (as Tyrone) getting on in the subway train sketch, while Arte Johnson himself started corpsing more as time goes on, the earliest of which was in a season three robot theatre sketch while he was messing with a bag of food.
  • Couch Gag: Gary Owens would have a different explanation as to what the acronym NBC stood for while reading the opening credits each episode.
  • Crossover: One episode of I Dream of Jeannie featured many Laugh-In cast guest appearances as Jeannie is discovered and set to guest star in an episode.
  • Cutaway Gag
  • Dirty Old Man: Arte Johnson's character Tyrone F. Horneigh, who was always making crude come-ons to Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi's repressed spinster character) and getting bopped in the head with her handbag.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Dan Rowan often smoked a pipe during the show, when he wasn't smoking cigarettes.
  • The Ditz: Played absolutely straight by Goldie.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Byron Gilliam started out as early as season two, but wasn't in the intros until season three.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Segments from the 1st season often were slow-paced, especially in the pilot special.
    • Morgul the Friendly Drelb, a pink Abonimable Snowman who only appeared in at least the first two episodes of season one and was only mentioned by name after Gary Owens announced the main cast at the beginning of the show.
    • Early episodes, including the pilot special, would often have shots of the audience. This was abandoned after the 3rd episode.
    • The 1st season had musical interludes, most notably from The Bee Gees.
    • Also from the 1st season, along with the pilot special, whenever they did the cocktail parties the cast and guest stars would often go in rows of 2 when telling jokes.
  • Gag Series
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Just about everything out of Dick's mouth.
    • "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!" — the closest thing you could get to an F-bomb on late-1960's television.
    • Tyrone F. Horneigh, however, didn't pass — his name had to be pronounced hor-NIGH, which kind of ruins the joke.
  • It Is Pronounced Tropay: Tyrone F. Horneigh, whose last name was pronounced "hor-nigh".
  • Large Ham: Many cast members (along with several guest stars) have their moments, but no one chews the scenery more than Jo Anne Worley. Gary Owens also qualified - it was essential to his role.
  • Laugh Track: The Smash Cut-heavy nature of the show made it necessary to use "sweetening" to avoid abrupt cuts in laughter.
    • Throw It In!: Laugh tracks in those days were created via a machine with several keys that would cue up tape loops of prerecorded laughter in a way similar to a Mellotron. When the first episodes were being "laughed up", a key stuck after the closing credits' "standing ovation" was recorded. That key cued up a recording of Charley Douglass - the man who invented the Laugh Track for television - clapping by himself. The operator later apologized for the accident, but the producers loved how unintentionally funny the sarcastic-sounding one-man applause was, and used it regularly during the show's end titles after that.
  • Lovable Sex Maniac: Dick Martin's entire show persona in a nutshell. This was especially evident in the cocktail party, where most of his segments were him making come-ons and other sexually-themed jokes to various ladies.
    • Arte Johnson's "Tyrone F. Horneigh" character.
    • Jo Anne Worley's jokes during the party were often raunchy gags about her and Boris' various naughty escapades.
  • Moral Guardians: Lily Tomlin's Mrs. Earbore, a.k.a. the "Tasteful Lady" was a parody of this trope.
  • Narrator: Sort of — Gary Owens as the announcer.
  • News Parody: Several variations, including Dick doing a standard satiric look at today's headlines, Alan Sues' sportscaster, Ruth Buzzi's gossip columnist, and Dan providing the "News of the Future" — a couple of which proved to be startlingly accurate, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and Ronald Reagan becoming president.
  • N-Word Privileges: Innocently invoked by Pamela Rodgers in a season three episode when she asks why cigarettes were called 'fags', with Jeremy Lloyd humorously turning the joke back on her with a case of Double Entendre.
  • No Fourth Wall: Dan would often invite the audience along with himself and Dick before they walked into the cocktail party.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Much of the show's humor hasn't aged particularly well, and will likely be lost on non-Baby Boomer viewers, although it does have its fans among young audiences today.
  • Only Sane Man: Dan Rowan often played this role, reacting to the other regulars' zaniness.
  • The Operators Must Be Crazy: Ernestine exemplifies this trope perfectly. However, her most famous line, ("We don't care. We don't have to. We're the telephone company.") was actually from a later Ernestine bit Lily Tomlin did on Saturday Night Live.
  • Panty Shot: A very quick blackout had the wind of an unseen fan blow Judy Carne's dress up.
  • Pun-Based Title: A play on the various "____ -in" protests of the era (sit-in, love-in, pray-in, be-in, etc.).
  • Rapid-Fire Comedy: An early example, which made the censors uncomfortable. Lampshaded in the Reunion Show.
  • Reunion Show: Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In 25th Anniversary Celebration. Netflix did one in late 2019 entitled "Still Laugh-In", which also doubled as an anniversary show.
  • Revival: George Schlatter attempted to near the end of the 70's, which didn't work out so well without Dan and Dick's permission.
  • Revolving Door Band: A non-musical example. Other than the hosts, announcer Gary Owens and actress Ruth Buzzi were the only constants in the entire five-year run.
  • Richard Nixon: "Sock it to meeeeeeeee?"
    • The 1977 revival had a Nixon impersonator:
    "Nixon": In 1969, I appeared on Laugh-In and said "Sock it to me. Sock it to me." Well, you can stop now!
  • Running Gag
  • Self-Deprecation: Done regularly, by both the regular cast members and the Special Guest stars. One of many examples:
    Tony Curtis: Wherever I go, people always ask me about Laugh-In. And they always ask the same thing; why?
    • At the end of his introduction, Owens would usually make some reference to "Morgul, the Friendly Drelb"; this was in reference to a pink yeti-like thing that appeared in the first episode and was horribly received.
  • Signing-Off Catchphrase
    Dan Rowan: Say goodnight, Dick.
    Dick Martin: Goodnight, Dick.
    • That might've been the origin of the "say goodnight, Gracie" misquote.
    • After Rowan would announce "it's now time to say goodnight, Dick," several shots of cast members and guests stars saying "Goodnight, Dick" would follow, as well as a random joke ("Who's Dick?").
  • Smash Cut: All over the place, as an essential part of the Rapid-Fire Comedy.
  • Special Guest: Just about every star of the day, often popping up unannounced in the midst of sketches. Sammy Davis Jr. was probably the most frequent, but Nixon was by far the best-known example.
  • Subverted Kids Show: "Uncle Al".
  • Take Our Word for It: The Joke Wall from the Monkees guest-episode goes particularly off the rails, with almost everyone either fumbling or corpsing.
    Judy: Jeremey!'s the "long black wig joke".
    Jeremy: Oh yes, and it's very funny too!
    Judy *to the audience*: You would have loved it!
  • Those Two Guys: Season two had Chelsea Brown paired up with Byron Gilliam, while in season three had Byron paired up with Teresa Graves; Pamela Rodgers was paired up at times with Jeremy Lloyd, too.
  • That Wacky Nazi: Arte Johnson's Wolfgang.
  • Totally Radical: Humor for and about Sixties youth culture, presented by middle-aged comedy veterans. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
  • Trap Door: Unbelievably so. Nearly everyone at one point in the 2nd season went through them, but none more so than Judy Carne, due to her status as the Butt-Monkey.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Bippy" for the rear end. You'll be betting your sweet bippy before long though.
    • "Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!"
  • Vanity Plate: "George Schlatter/Ed Friendly Productions, in association with Romart", accompanied by Charley Douglass' clapping (see above).

Alternative Title(s): Laugh In


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: