Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 29, 2021)
After a trial run as a one-off special in September 1967, a sketch comedy show called Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In debuted in January 1968. Hosted by comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, the show quickly became a cultural touchstone and a huge ratings success.
For a while, at least. During that initial 1967-68 partial season, Laugh-In became the 21st highest rated show in the US, but it went all the way to number one for 1968-69 and 1969-70.
The 1970-71 season dropped it to number 13, and then Laugh-In fell to number 22 for 1971-72. During 1972-73, Laugh-In dropped out of the top 30 and left the airwaves.
With this massive 37-disc DVD set, we can revisit all 140 episodes of Laugh-In - for better or for worse. Because I was five years old when the series went off the air, I maintain only the loosest memories of it.
While I feel certain I viewed the show as a little kid, I don’t recall anything specific. That made this DVD set essentially my first screening of Laugh-In.
Because it would take me an extreme span of time to watch all 140 episodes, I decided to watch three episodes per season instead. From beginning to end, Laugh-In assumed the same format.
This mainly meant a slew of comedic sketches, with the expected core cast. Whereas Saturday Night Live would come with a guest host each week, Rowan and Martin remained the leaders for each show.
That doesn’t mean Laugh-In went with a static crew, though. Each episode brought a mix of celebrity guests who participated to varying degrees.
Also like SNL, Laugh-In brought musical guests – for a little while, that is. Early shows used primitive music videos, but these disappeared fairly quickly. Later episodes dabbled in some musical performances from guests, but this didn’t occur often.
Laugh-In featured plenty of music and song/dance numbers, though. It simply used the core cast to perform these, so we didn’t get pure performances like the guests on SNL would offer.
Most media represents the era of its creation, but Laugh-In felt more likely than most to come across as dated. The series tried so hard to reflect its period’s culture that it seemed nearly inevitable Laugh-In would age worse than most sketch comedy series.
And age poorly it did. While I respect Laugh-In as a seminal comedy series, it simply isn’t very funny 50 years after the fact.
Laugh-In sure worked overtime to amuse, as it came with a relentless pace. Whereas SNL offers single sketches that run five to eight minutes or so, Laugh-In would run segments that spanned 30 seconds or less – sometimes much less, as a “sequence” could consist of a cutaway to a single uttered word.
I hope the editors of Laugh-In got paid handsomely, as they needed to splice together tons of material. With so many brief segments and a mix of guests, Laugh-In cranked through shots with insane alacrity.
Even when the show didn’t cut from one gag to another in a hurry, skits threw jokes out at warp speed. Regular segments like the “cocktail party” or the “joke wall” lasted a decent span of time, but their formats allowed for many one-liners in a brief period.
All of this must’ve seemed revelatory in the late 60s/early 70s, and even by 21st century standards, Laugh-In pushes through its gags at an absurd pace. It included more jokes per minute that possibly any other TV series in history.
Unfortunately, as I noted earlier, most of these just don’t seem very funny 50 years after the fact. Much of the problem comes from the series’ forced attempts to seem “hip” and relevant.
In its era, Laugh-In unquestionably pushed boundaries. However, it never feels natural to me.
A lot of that stems from the fact Laugh-In largely used people who were already well into adulthood when the cultural changes of the 1960s happened. Most of those involved came of age in the 1950s, so they didn’t see the upheaval of the era with “young eyes”.
Contrast that with SNL, as most of its initial cast experienced those events from the perspective of youth. Of course, SNL can seem very dated as well, but at least it brought a natural vibe for the counterculture, whereas Laugh-In doesn’t boast the same feel.
Instead, Laugh-In comes across like a bunch of squares who attempted to connect to the youth demographic. While its jokes go political and press cultural buttons, they don’t seem organic.
Laugh-In also often feels like a product of that earlier generation, as it gives off much more of a vaudeville/traditional show business vibe than the more daring SNL. A whole lot of Laugh-In could’ve played exactly the same a decade earlier, as it seems much more like a product of the late 50s/early 60s than its own period.
Honestly, it’s hard to believe so little time separated Laugh-In and SNL, as the former seems so much more antiquated and “square” than the latter. As I noted, early years SNL comes with plenty of its own dated material, but the show still gives off a hip, dangerous vibe that the solidly “traditional show biz” Laugh-In lacks.
This impacts performances as well. Laugh-In almost always goes with the broadest possible acting, and that gets old, as no one seems to know how to undersell a joke. It’s like one long burlesque show played to the cheap seats.
I really do respect the ground broken by Laugh-In. “Square” as so much of it seems, it did knock down some barriers and bring a much more topical flavor to network TV comedy.
50 years later, though, the show just doesn’t work. I’m happy I visited Laugh-In for historical reasons, but I can’t imagine I’d ever want to watch these programs again.