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TELEVISION : Sock It to ‘Em! : ‘Laugh-In’ stars remember the heady days of the show when they debuted as anonymous players and skyrocketed to TV stardom

Michael Arkush is a Times staff writer.

The new comedy show from NBC was supposed to be a joke--especially in the ratings.

Pitted against two CBS heavyweights--"The Lucy Show” and “Gunsmoke"--the one-hour Monday night series offered anonymous actors in an unproven format. “We had nothing to lose,” recalled creator and executive producer George Schlatter. “It was kamikaze. NBC had already hired our replacement.”

But something went right. After its debut on Jan. 22, 1968, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” quickly captured a generation. Within months, it had skyrocketed to No. 1, where it would stay for two years. As the original cast began to leave, the luster faded, but the show continued until May 14, 1973.

“It could be funny, outrageous, and yet was about something,” said NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, whose network will present a two-hour special tonight (9-11 o’clock) to celebrate “Laugh-In’s” 25th anniversary. The program, produced by Schlatter and his daughter, Maria, will feature clips from the old shows plus footage from last month’s reunion party at a Santa Monica hotel.

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With a unique blend of irreverence and insanity, “Laugh-In” perfectly suited its time, helping a nation in turmoil over the Vietnam War abroad and social upheaval at home laugh at its institutions and itself.

“It was an oasis of laughter and escape,” said Henry Gibson, the cast’s resident poet. “If we could absorb the shock of events around us, maybe the rest of the country could too.”

America grew infatuated with the show’s offbeat characters--the voyeuristic Nazi officer, the bratty Edith Ann, the pitiful woman on the park bench--and its catch phrases: “You bet your sweet bippy,” “Here comes the judge,” " Verrry interesting.”

With its rapid-fire cuts and kaleidoscope of colors and music, it also dramatically altered the nature of television. “We quickened the pace,” said co-host Dick Martin. “Then everybody copied us, and today MTV is doing it 10 times faster than we did it.”

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Said Schlatter: “We tried to squeeze as much information into one hour as possible. It was sensory overload.”

Schlatter had tried for three years to sell the “Laugh-In” concept to network executives, but they were convinced that only a traditional variety series, in the style of Perry Como or Danny Kaye, with mostly song-and-dance routines, could be successful in prime time. Schlatter finally prevailed by letting NBC believe “Laugh-In” would generally follow that formula.

“We sold them what they wanted and then did what we wanted,” he said. “This was the only way we were going to get on.”

The show first aired as a one-night special on Sept. 9, 1967, receiving unspectacular ratings but favorable press reaction.

Martin said NBC never understood the concept: “They couldn’t figure out why we didn’t have people like Sammy Davis Jr. sing. They said, ‘You’re using these people the wrong way.’ But, of course, we weren’t going to let him sing. If he did, we would have pushed him through the trapdoor.”

Following are the thoughts and memories of some cast members who got together for the January reunion. Besides Dan Rowan, who died in 1987, the only big name missing is Jo Anne Worley, who was on tour with “Annie.”

Dick Martin

For Martin, a nightclub performer who had toured the country with Dan Rowan since the early 1950s, “Laugh-In” was a total shock. “Dan and I were traveling troubadours, and all of a sudden we had this new family,” he said.

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Martin, who played the naive goofball to Rowan’s straight man, said the show constantly outfoxed the network censors by slipping in marijuana jokes. He recalled one bit from the show’s weekly news roundup in which it was reported that, for the first time ever, all members of the United Nations had agreed on every item on their agenda and “they are still looking for the person who put grass in the air conditioner.”

Martin said the censor didn’t understand the joke. “We told him that grass makes people happy because it’s green and looks pretty,” he said with a laugh. “He came in the next day and was so upset we got that in. It’s hard to believe those guys were so square.”

Martin recalled Richard Nixon’s famous appearance on Sept. 16, 1968, just six weeks before the presidential election. (“Laugh-In” featured cameos each week by famous figures in entertainment, politics and sports, such as William Buckley Jr., Billy Graham, Martha Mitchell, John Wayne, Jack Lemmon, Wilt Chamberlain and Tiny Tim. “It was like clerking at the Supreme Court,” Henry Gibson said.)

Nixon was asked to say one of the show’s staple phrases--"Sock it to me.” Not surprisingly, Nixon was no natural. “He was very nervous,” Martin said. “He kept licking his lips to get relaxed.”

Yet Martin credits Nixon’s appearance with helping him win the election. “Nixon showed a sense of humor that wasn’t noticeable before,” he explained. He said Nixon’s opponent, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, was also offered a chance to say the same line, but his advisers felt it would be demeaning.

In recent years, Martin, 70, has directed television shows, including “Sledge Hammer!,” “Archie’s Place” and Bob Newhart’s new series, “Bob.”

Goldie Hawn

Unlike what the stars of “Saturday Night Live” would do later, the “Laugh-In” alumni didn’t graduate automatically into movie stardom. Except Goldie. She won an Academy Award in 1969 for “Cactus Flower” and went on to a major career in films.

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For all her film achievements, however, Hawn reserves a special spot for her three seasons on “Laugh-In.” “They were the greatest three years of my life,” she said. “I knew it then and I know it now.”

She was the group’s blond bimbo, always mispronouncing the simplest words. That character came by accident.

“We didn’t know what to do with me,” recalled Hawn, whom Schlatter first spotted as a dancer on an Andy Griffith special. “I didn’t have an act, except to dance a little and sing a little. One day, I read from the TelePromTer and got mixed up. I got more and more befuddled. . . . I didn’t think I was funny, and my mother didn’t think I was funny, but everyone else did.”

Hawn said the show practiced a “great socialism” that provided a lot of freedom to each cast member. “It was unconditional affection, and I miss that,” she said. “It’s something that I strive for in my films. Leaving the show was one of the saddest days of my life.”

Lily Tomlin

Two weeks before Hawn left “Laugh-In” in 1970, a new star emerged to assume her throne.

Lily Tomlin was supposed to be a New York stage actress. She loved writing monologues and unveiling her special gang of characters to live audiences. Television was not in the game plan.

“I didn’t think I’d be very good at it,” Tomlin said. “I seem like I am outgoing, but I really am the kind of person who didn’t want to be shoved to the forefront.”

She had little choice. Two of her personalities--little girl Edith Ann and Ernestine, the sassy telephone operator (“One ringy dingy”)--caught on immediately. A quarter-century later, Tomlin is still puzzled by their popularity.

“When I look at them, I see undeveloped characters,” she said. “I don’t like them. They were pretty mediocre.”

Schlatter, at first, wasn’t enthusiastic about letting Tomlin introduce Edith Ann. He thought she might be too rude. Tomlin bargained with Schlatter, agreeing to do Suzie Cheerleader if he accepted Edith Ann.

Schlatter discovered Tomlin doing a barefoot tap dance at a New York club. She joined “Laugh-In” at the height of its fame. “I was scared,” she confessed. “Everyone else was very famous, and I was an unknown. It was like going to a new school.”

From “Laugh-In,” Tomlin made her film debut in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” earning an Academy Award nomination. She went on to star in such hits as “9 to 5" and “All of Me” but never abandoned her roots as a monologuist. She won a Tony in 1977 for her one-woman show “Appearing Nitely,” and another in 1986 for her one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.”

Currently, she is preparing to play Miss Hathaway in the film version of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Judy Carne

In the early days, Judy Carne was the most popular person on the show. She already had appeared on three television comedies, including the 1966-67 ABC sitcom “Love on a Rooftop,” and she got tons of fan mail and air time. But when Goldie Hawn began to emerge, Carne was forced into the background, an adjustment she was unable to handle.

“I had an identity crisis,” Carne said. “I looked in the mirror and couldn’t find the features on my face. I felt I wasn’t contributing enough to the show.”

After she left “Laugh-In” in 1970, Carne’s problems worsened. She became a heroin addict and almost killed herself.

At 53, she says she is clean and ready for a comeback. In recent years, she has performed regularly onstage in her native England and has been working on a screenplay of her 1985 autobiography, “Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside.”

“It’s time for me to do it again,” Carne said. “I’d hate to go out on a bad note.”

Still, Carne reflects fondly about her years as the “sock-it-to-me” girl. Each week, she was victimized by another stunt; being doused with buckets of water was the most popular form of humiliation.

The idea came from Schlatter’s wife, former actress Jolene Brand, who, as a regular on “The Ernie Kovacs Show” in the 1950s, was always getting hit in the face by a pie. She heard her daughter, Maria, 4, repeating the line “Sock it to me” from Aretha Franklin’s popular song “Respect,” and told her husband he should find a way to introduce sight gags on the show. One day, Schlatter heard Carne singing the same song on the set and found his guinea pig.

“He told me he was going to do awful things to me,” Carne recalled, “but that I’d have the sympathy of the nation. And I did.”

Arte Johnson

Johnson originated two memorable characters: Wolfgang, the German soldier lurking behind a potted palm, and Tyrone, the romantic old man on the park bench who flirted with Ruth Buzzi’s raggedy lady. Johnson, a veteran stage performer, had played these roles at parties, but never professionally.

“A lot of people still connected to World War II back then,” Johnson said, “and the German character became part of me. He was a leprechaun who had no function, except to watch.”

He was stunned by the public response to Wolfgang. “I couldn’t believe that two words (verrry interesting), a total non sequitur, would have that kind of impact. All the time, even today, people ask me to say those words.”

He said Tyrone was patterned after a Chicago police lieutenant who demonstrated an “extensive interest in young children.”

The characters worked, Johnson said, because of their continuity: “People wanted to see what they said each week.” Yet he believes they hindered his chances of doing serious dramatic roles after “Laugh-In” went off the air.

“People made the assumption that I was a comedian, not an actor,” Johnson said. “I went ballistic because I didn’t know how to fight that. I think that’s the reason that none of us got movie contracts like the ‘Saturday Night Live’ people. They thought we were one-line sketch comics, but the truth is we were tried-and-true performers in a new role.”

Eventually, Johnson landed a prominent role in the 1979 film “Love at First Bite.” He has done voices for children’s specials and has worked in stage, appearing recently in “The Sunshine Boys” at the La Mirada Theatre.

Ruth Buzzi

In 1958, Ruth Buzzi purchased a dress, sweater and shoes at a Pasadena thrift shop. Ten years later, they helped make her famous.

She had used the outfit, along with an atrocious hair net, for the play “Auntie Mame.” Schlatter saw a picture of her in it. “He thought I’d be wonderful wearing that dress in the cocktail party scene,” Buzzi said.

Buzzi played a wide assortment of characters on “Laugh-In.” It wasn’t until the second season that she found herself on the park bench.

“Arte’s brother Coslough knew he did a dirty man character, and he thought it would be funny to put us together,” Buzzi recalled. “It was brilliant.”

After the show was canceled, Buzzi took the dress on the road for USO shows. She also wore it on Dean Martin celebrity roasts. She worked frequently in the 1970s and 1980s in television, films and plays, yet her post-"Laugh-In” career was never as lucrative as she’d been led to expect.

“I had producers telling me week after week that I’d work forever,” she said. “You got the feeling that after the show ended, you wouldn’t be able to breathe. But that didn’t happen.

“The biggest frustration is that you are tremendously lucky to get one hit TV show in your life. The idea of knowing that you probably won’t get on a series that big again is tough. You keep looking for that kind of group again, but you never find it.”

Henry Gibson

Henry Gibson was the show’s poet and flower child. An example:

Elements, by Henry Gibson.

I used to like fresh air;

When it was there.

And water, I enjoyed it.

Till we destroyed it.

Each day, the land’s diminished,

I think I’m finished.

Gibson first read poetry on “The Tonight Show” in 1962, just before Johnny Carson became the host. Some of his poems have been published in high school textbooks.

“It seemed ripe to resurrect it for ‘Laugh-In,’ ” said Gibson, who always held a flower as he recited his prose. He wrote all the pieces.

Gibson said the show served as ideal preparation for his later work as a character actor in movies. He has appeared in 21 feature films, including a well-regarded role as a country-music star in “Nashville.” Other credits include: “Innerspace,” “The Long Goodbye” and “The Blues Brothers.”

Gary Owens

Gary Owens was in the bathroom of the Smoke House restaurant in Burbank when he learned his destiny on “Laugh-In.” Noticing the acoustic tile on the ceiling, which created an echo effect, he held his hand near his mouth to amplify the sound and began to satirize the voice of a typical 1940s radio announcer.

“George was right there, and said that’s what I should be doing on the show,” Owens said. “So I became the announcer.”

The role stuck for every one of the show’s 140 episodes. Only he and Buzzi appeared in each one.

Owens’ brief announcements from “beautiful downtown Burbank” were used for transitions between sketches. “It was an important role for the pacing of the show,” Owens said. “You had to have that transition between Goldie dancing in a bikini and Arte in a Nazi uniform.”

For Owens, like most of the cast, “Laugh-In” provided instant recognition and a permanent place in television lore. He had worked as an actor and disc jockey for years in Los Angeles before the show, and focused on radio afterward. He now handles the afternoon shift for easy-listening simulcast stations KJQI-AM (1260) and KOJY-AM (540).

“It gave me a name, and that goes for the others,” Owens said. “It’s something we can never forget.”

Was TV That Different?!? In its first full season (1968-69), “Laugh-In” came out on top of a verrry interesting field. We hope the shows provide you with varying degrees of nostalgia: 1. “Laugh-In,” NBC 2. “Gomer Pyle,” CBS 3. “Bonanza,” NBC 4. “Mayberry RFD,” CBS 5. “Family Affair,” CBS 6. “Gunsmoke,” CBS 7. “Julia,” NBC 8. “Dean Martin,” NBC 9. “Here’s Lucy,” CBS 10. “Beverly Hillbillies,” CBS


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