Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sensor Scan: Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

The question of exactly how radical and progressive a television show can get when it's airing on major network television and supported by corporate advertising and ratings is an interesting one. On the surface the answer seems like a flat “not in the slightest”: Simply put, it's a rather noticeable conflict of interest to have a work deeply invested in overturning the current social order dependent on the tools and infrastructure of the very hegemony it's set itself in opposition to. On the other hand, one does sort of hope there's at least a little-wiggle room for this kind of thing in pop culture mass media: If you're a young person just starting to come to terms with your worldview and unaware of big underground counterculture movements, it's really helpful to be able to turn on the TV and see you're not completely alone, especially in a world without the Internet.

In the past, we've looked at this issue on the context of Star Trek: Supposedly the most forward-thinking and youth-embracing show on television in the late 1960s, the Original Series has in truth proven to be somewhat changeable on the ethics front. There have been moments that seem to support this claim, most noticeably in the last third of the second season, but there have also been just as many, if not more, that would seem to give the indication Star Trek was anything but, and in truth pretty regularly and reliably (and disturbingly) reactionary. But that's Star Trek, and in spite of the numerous overtures it can and has made towards a more socially-conscious approach, it's still burdened by some pretty major liabilities (in particular the one named Gene Roddenberry) and its potential to make a positive impact is frustratingly not always as clear as it should be. The question remains though: Can you have a truly countercultural television show? We can, in fact, take an even broader scope: Can you have countercultural Soda Pop Art at all?

In my opinion, the only real satisfactory answer is “yes and no”, and for a good example let's take a look at the other iconic NBC show of 1968, and the show that kicked Star Trek out of its primetime slot: Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Conceived by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin as an evolution of the “straight man/dumb guy” act they had honed in nightclubs, Laugh-In was a weekly sketch comedy show most famous for its innovative style marked by rapid-fire editing that cut between various discrete images and scenarios. The jokes and sketches on Laugh-In were frequently only seconds in length, just there long enough to deliver a punchline before cutting away to something completely different. The show lasted an impressively long time, from 1968 until 1973, and helped launch the careers of future luminaries like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, not to mention Lorne Michaels, a staff writer on Laugh-In who would go on to produce Saturday Night Live.

The most obvious thing that set Laugh-In apart from its predecessors in television and stage comedy, and what it's most remembered for, is its overt courting of the 1960s counterculture, and in particular the Mods and the Hippies. There was a *lot* of Carnaby Street imagery in Laugh-In: One of the reoccurring settings of many of the one-liners was a wild-looking Mod party where everyone would be entranced and dancing wildly. Then suddenly, everything would stop, someone would tell a joke, then everything starts up again just in time for the show to cut away for something else. There was also a fair bit of youth culture lingo, or a reasonable stab at it (the legendary “Sock it to me!” and a family-friendly version of “You bet your ass!” are probably the most famous examples), not to mention a healthy portion of sexual humour. This is where the show gets really changeable, and I'm assuming it probably varies depending on who wrote the sketch: Laugh-In could either make a charmingly inclusive and innocent comment about the ubiquity of the Free Love movement or land square in unwatchable “sexual assault is funny” territory. Speaking of Free Love, the name Laugh-In itself is quite obviously a reference to the concept of a “sit-in” or “love-in”, the idea of a peaceful form of organised protest in favour of civil rights made famous by its popularity in the 1960s.

Another way Laugh-In tried to reach out to the youth culture was by having a lot of their jokes be about actual contemporary social and political issues. However, like its take on sexuality, this also had a tendency to vary in tone and quality from time to time. One of the better exchanges I found goes like this. Dan Rowan's character is talking to Hippie lady in a silver sequined bra and dress. She says “You know, Dan, blacks have a really rough time in the union of South Africa”. Rowan responds “Well, minorities have it rough all over” to which she responds “Yeah, but it's tougher to be a minority when there's more of you then there is of them”. Now today this scene wouldn't seem like anything special, but in 1968 it was sort of a new thing to have comedy like this that not only took that blunt a look at world issues, but have the half-naked Hippie chick be the one delivering the punchline to the dimwitted establishment figure in a suit, and on primetime on NBC to boot (Also brilliant is “My church accepts all denominations. But my favourite is the five-dollar bill”). However, for as many clever exchanges like this as the show gave us, it also had an almost equal amount of ones that were...less than successful, such as “All the kids in my school are really proud of the astronauts. Imagine: To stay that high for that long!”.

In moments such as this it almost feels as if Laugh-In was self-consciously trying to reel itself in and make sure it never crossed the line too much, and to go out of its way to make everyone look equally slow and imbecilic on different occasions so as not to offend people. The problem is, comedic satire only works when it's directed towards figures of authority and oppression: When you start leveling it at the oppressed, which the youth culture absolutely was in 1968, you stop being agents of change and start being tools of The Man (this isn't even getting at people of US-African descent, which Laugh-In had an equally rocky, yet incredibly more awkward, relationship with). When the show slips up and starts delivering cringe-inducing moments like this, two things happen: Either the joke lands at toothless and unfunny if it's lucky, and if it's not, it lands square in the territory of reactionary. The absolute nadir of Laugh-In in this regard has to be the episode where Richard Nixon made a cameo in a “Sock it to me!” joke during his campaign in a pitiful attempt to gain favour with the youth...That is credited by political historians as pretty much being the thing that won him the election. That alone really ought to be reason enough to throw out the whole show.

(Although I will say I found seeing Leonard Nimoy in a similar cameo remarking “Does NBC even know this show is on the air?” to be legitimately clever, hilarious and completely unexpected.)

However the real problem with Laugh-In, and the true reason why it became a show that could get away with selling the frankly bewildering idea that Richard Nixon was in some way a hip ally of the counterculture was because, ultimately, it was too indebted to the United States variety tradition. This was not some bristling bit of anarcha-humour that targeted the hegemony, this was a Mod-themed Vaudeville routine. And, like all Vaudeville, Laugh-In had a tendency to be, well, awful. On an alarming number of occasions, the bits of Laugh-In I saw felt uncomfortably like someone took a “1001 Happening Hippie Jokes” book and built an entire show around that. Stuff like “I hear Governor Reagan is really worried about earthquakes in California. He's afraid Berkeley may shift even further to the left!” is at best the worst kind of stand-up platitude (Right Wing politicians don't like Left Wing activists? I mean wow, what a keen observation...) and at worst dangerously reactionary. This kind of joke is the 1960s version of those terrible “humour” books from the 1980s and 1990s that tried to cash in on the personal computer craze with “witticisms” like “What does the President use with his computer in the Oval Office? A White mouse!”.

Although to be fair to Laugh-In, this isn't entirely its fault: Vaudeville was a genre defined by how defanged it was due to the draconian moral codes instituted by studios and touring companies. The fact is, there's not a whole lot of difference between that system and the one that existed on network television in the 1960s. Television sketch comedy is a direct descendent of Vaudeville, and it suffers from the same intrinsic drawbacks. And to its credit, Laugh-In does seem to have gotten it right at least as often as it got it wrong, at least if you forgive them Richard Nixon, and it does seem to be ahead of the curve on several things. For one, the people making the show seem on the whole aware of its limitations due to the profusion of self-deprecating humour on this show, in particular directed at NBC or the producers (Leonard Nimoy's cameo being merely the best example). That's something you wouldn't see in Vaudeville or earlier television variety or comedy shows because as soon as someone made a joke like that they'd mysteriously disappear from the playbook. But, as I mentioned in the “I, Mudd” post, it's this kind of self-awareness that comes to define this style of performance in the future (and that was lacking from the episode in question) and it's Laugh-In where it's the clearest this is beginning to be more widely disseminated.

It's also worth stressing that the overt references to recreational drug use and sexuality as part of a larger acknowledgment that the counterculture was part of the fabric of society such that it could become the source of gentle ribbing instead of fear and scorn, and on primetime television, was sort of a watershed and definitely would have left a powerful impression. Despite its stumblings, Laugh-In does seem to have a higher baseline target for how it handled this sort of thing than Star Trek did, and the ratings would seem to back this assertion up (although it is telling that Laugh-In and Star Trek were considered comparable enough such that there could be crossovers). It's tough to fault NBC for keeping it in its Monday timeslot and knocking Star Trek to Fridays.

Furthermore, the legacy of Laugh-In is quite palpable. While I disagree with what seems to be the common statement that Monty Python's Flying Circus is somehow a successor to it (Monty Python comes out of a very particularly British tradition of comedy and is in some sense quite culturally specific, and Laugh-In is about as United States as it gets), its influence is clear in other places. The connection to Saturday Night Live is obvious, and there's a direct link between Laugh-In and Mark Evanier's career, especially Garfield and Friends. It's also peculiarly enough, easy to see the impact it had on Jim Henson's work, particularly Sesame Street. Both use a very rapid fire style of editing to quickly convey information and symbols as part of a larger sensory experience (it's obvious on Sesame Street in the “commercial” segments) and while I was watching Laugh-In to prepare for this article I found myself being reminded of the kind of “MTV Spectacle” style best exemplified by the music videos of the 1980s, in particular the late-1980s.

But what I think is most important about Laugh-In is that it did get a somewhat positive version of the youth culture on television in 1968. It's not a perfect portrayal (it's definitely sanitized for family viewing) and I'm not even sure this is the best show of its time to tackle the issue, but it is there and in 1968: The year where the 1960s counterculture essentially died out in the mainstream and was forced underground. That's frankly unbelievable, and it's tough not to be heartened by the fact a show like this lasted all the way until 1973. What I think this shows is that yes, it is in fact possible to have an expressly radical Soda Pop Art. There are going to be compromises and trying to get a show like this made is always going to be a gamble, but it's at least possible. And I'll just say this: I have a distinct feeling it was a whole lot easier to do a show like Laugh-In in 1968 than it would be if you tried to make it today.


  1. Thanks for that - I always mean to find out if Laugh-In is available to watch anywhere, as I have fond memories of it completely out of context in late-'70s UK repeats when I was a little boy. Though "Sock it to me" wasn't the catchphrase I always remembered (speaking of which, what was the family-friendly version of 'You bet your ass!'? Because to British ears that sounds like the family-friendly version already). Though perhaps I noticed that the women were wearing revealing clothes to be decorative and the men were very buttoned-down...

    My instinctive counter-argument 'progressive comedy good, conservative comedy bad' (aside from wondering if it's so cut-and-dried: isn't the implication of the Reagan joke also that big butch Reagan is terrified of hippy students?) would be to ask who watches it. If it got a wide social spectrum to watch, might that not encourage some conservatives to laugh at themselves and their leaders, which would undermine them?

    And I your two "progressive" gags were very funny.

    For all that, I'd like to see it again, which must say something about it when logic tells me I should bear grudges for helping kill off Star Trek and, more importantly to me, The Avengers, which it suddenly killed in the ratings and cut off the all-important US funding for. One of my Avengers reviews even quotes how they responded to it, and I use the catchphrase I remember to critique it back...

    1. You don't remember, "You bet your sweet bippy!"? I can understand if you don't remember the film version they made.

    2. I like the idea that more right-leaning people would watch a show like Laugh-In and be encouraged to laugh at themselves. While I'm unsure of the exact demographics, occupying a primetime slot would seem to indicate that it had a pretty wide and significant audience pool, and the fact the Laugh-In *did* so often try to make fun of everyone equally could be read as an attempt to shift the discourse a bit.

      Certainly if everyone's fair game that also puts everyone on the same level playing field in a sense. I'm not entirely sure that makes up for parodying the oppressed, which I'm morally opposed to just on principle, but it may well have had net positive consequences.

  2. Oh, that's where that comes from! Thank you. And I'd never heard of the film version...

    And that would be my feeling, Josh, but I'm torn between arguing the difference between criticising people who have power and who don't and realising pragmatically that 'Do as I say, not as I do' is never a mind-changer.