As someone old enough to have watched Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I was horrified by the shoddy salute Netflix dumped into its streaming service Tuesday. It was offensive and abysmal, and, as Edith Anne used to say, “That’s the truth. PFFFFT.”
The original Laugh-In (1968 – 73) was fast-paced, joke filled and featured — beyond veteran nightclub entertainer hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin (right) — a fresh group of entertainers who quickly found themselves poster childs for the psychedelic sixties. Even a young lad, such as I was at the time, could laugh at the knock-knock jokes, collect the bubble gum cards and get caught up in the colour and speed of the whole thing. It was The Ed Sullivan Show on uppers — back when uppers were only thought of as dentures.
Creator George Schlatter, still with us (and seen squirming through the new special from the audience), brilliantly framed the series with the two gently-used hosts (less clean cut but more square than The Smothers Brothers), a somewhat familiar announcer (played by TV veteran Gary Owens) and conventional-yet-game guest stars (Sammy Davis Jr., John Wayne, Zsa Zsa Gabor and, well, Nixon).
The rest of the show was driven by irresistible younger players such as Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Jo-Anne Worley, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Ruth Buzzi and others. Alan Sues, Teresa Graves, Chelsey Brown and the brilliant Lily Tomlin came a year or two later, as Schlatter replenished and finessed his cast, creating a blueprint for everything from Saturday Night Live to MAD-tv and other comedy sketch shows to follow. Moved out of the mix were names too closely associated with prior shows, including former Get Smart co-star Barbara Feldon and Partridge Family foil Dave Madden. Before it was all over, future Family Feud host Richard Dawson was part of the cast.
The manufactured madness aimed for Python zaniness but was all very American. The talent mix was the big draw and the show went viral before viral was anything but the flu. Before you could say, “Sock it to me,” everybody was saying “Sock it to me.”
The wonderful thing about this electric vaudeville format was that if you were bored by anything, wait 30 seconds. The show never stopped. Bits such as the Fickle Finger of Fate and the Joke Wall were generally always worth the wait.
Netflix’s Still Laugh-In is, sadly, a lame but perfectly titled remembrance. This mess is so “Still” it is interminable. It was fun when jokes failed and misfired on the original; here they just hang and fossilize.
Neil Patrick Harris and Tiffany Haddish would come to mind if you were re-casting a remake of the series but they got old fast as hosts for the special. Chelsea Handler and her pal Mary McCormack got in a little face time, as did Snoop Dogg, Margaret Cho and former SNL liar Jon Lovitz. Comedy Central roast master Jeff Ross did a joke here; Maria Bamford popped through the Joke Wall there. Loni Anderson? The producers cast a wide net and caught a lot of odd fish.
At one point, original troopers Tomlin, Worley and Buzzi came out to take a bow. Tomlin took a shot or two at Trump. Buzzi get back into her old lady getup for a bench sketch (fun back when Arte Johnston was chasing her). If she had any lines they were cut — disappointing to those of us who laugh with her daily now on her hilarious Twitter feed.
Tomlin — the biggest name original cast member today (with Hawn — perhaps wisely — not taking part) put on the Ernestine wig and updated her “one-ring-a-dingy” phone shtick. It worked okay; better than her under-written attempts to climb back into the oversized rocking chair as bratty Edith Ann.
Clearly, the show was unrehearsed to the point of panic. This was hammered home in the end credit outtakes by Rita Moreno. The Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy winner, who is 87, was one of the fresher faces on stage as comedy veterans laid egg after egg at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.
The familiar Laugh-In party scene was rebooted with old clips coming fast and furious between new clips. That started out a promising idea until, pretty soon, all you wanted to see was the old clips. Jay Leno seemed like somebody’s ride who crashed the party.
Canadian Russell Peters could be glimpsed occasionally as one of the comics dancing between jokes on the set. We only hear from him, and barely, in the end credits, where, like Moreno, his true feelings about the special are vented. Basically he was trying to say, “These bad jokes you hear me telling? Not my fault.”
Bill Maher got off easy by walking on stage and setting up a salute to the Fickle Finger of Fate — given, with numbing predictability, to Donald Trump. The special screamed out for a shot of Trump saying, “Sock it to me?” afterwards. Billy Crystal made an appearance to show off his new hairpiece.
It went on and on like this review. Here’s the worst part — all the F-bombs. Laugh-In was a lot of things but one thing it never was was vulgar. Schlatter and fellow comedy legend Norman Lear, who sat together in the theatre audience, never ever reached for the smutty cheap laugh. They and others in the audience looked on in horror as Haddish and a string of Comedy Store stringers dropped F-bomb after F-bomb.
The original Laugh-In wasn’t perfect, but you could show it to kids. You can look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls.