Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series

| June 19, 2017

Time Life’s home video release of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series is one of the most delightfully formidable collections I’ve ever dipped into—a bit of a contradiction, I know, but hopefully you’ll see what I mean soon enough. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In ran for 140 episodes from 1968 to 1973 and Time Life packed the entirety of the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning variety series into one colorful and stunning, 38-disc collection with packaging designed to invoke the atmosphere of the irreverent comic psychedelia therein! Hosted by the perpetually-smoking Dan Rowan and his goofball foil Dick Martin, Laugh-In is a never-ending barrage of quickies, one-liners, and sight gags that you’re sure to miss if you dare to blink.

If that sounds hyperbolic, I swear to you it’s not! By comparison to its variety show contemporaries, including series like my childhood favorite The Carol Burnett Show, NBC’s Laugh-In moves at a shockingly break-neck pace, moment-for-moment the most joke-packed variety series of its era… at least that I’ve encountered, so correct me if I’m wrong. In fact, you’ll find Laugh-In’s pace more akin to that of later series like Monty Python than other variety shows of the era, a series markedly ahead of its time.

Just to show you how fast Laugh-In moves, I’ve got some season five episodes playing while I write here and I just decided to do a count as this new episode (episode eleven of season five) started. I counted at least 23 separate setups/one-liners/sketches in the first 4 minutes alone, and that was before the series was even introduced to the audience by announcer Gary Owens! Though Laugh-In may slow down a bit in stretches, the pace varies so wildly throughout with its occasional infusion of rapid-fire one-liners and sight gags as transitions that it constantly demands your attention. Heck, even when it “slows down,” you can’t let your attention waiver as text-based jokes occasionally glide across the screen.

So really, don’t blink! If you do, you stand to miss out on who knows how many outrageously edgy (for the era, of course) gags rooted in the social and political concerns of folks in the late-1960’s and early-1970’s. At least four or five times an episode, I’ve found myself marveling at the jokes they got past the censors, jokes related to sexuality, sex itself, gender, race, politics, and even religion. And it consistently remains unpredictable even in its most iconic recurring segments such as the parties, which merely provide a venue for a diverse cast of characters to spout one- and two-liners, and the joke wall, which is much the same thing only with the show’s cast members popping out of trap doors on a large, psychedelic wall.

After spending some 12+ hours with the series over the last few days, bouncing around its six seasons to get a feel for its evolution, I really do think it’s a shame that Laugh-In’s something we didn’t see in reruns more in the 80’s and 90’s. I’d surely heard the name plenty growing up and distinctly recall seeing Lily Tomlin’s operator and little kid characters on later programs, and I was familiar with the Sammy Davis Jr. “Here Comes the Judge” catchphrase. Yet I never saw one single episode of Laugh-In growing up.

Following Laugh-In creator George Schlatter’s appearance on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast in early 2016, though, I found myself consuming every clip or episode I could find on YouTube throughout the following weeks. As someone with a deep affinity for classic television (my favorite sitcom of all time is Car 54, Where Are You? even), I hoped some distributor someday would allow me the opportunity to catch up on a series I’d only ever heard legends about until last year. And in a mercifully short time, my wish was granted by Time Life and here I am writing with this behemoth of a psychedelic DVD collection at my side!

If you’re unfamiliar with Laugh-In, you’ll find in it many elements that look mighty familiar if you’ve watched Saturday Night Live or similar shows over the years. Laugh-In boasts countless celebrity guests, musical guests, and a rotating roster of regular cast members that included the likes of Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson, Flip Wilson, Ruth Buzzi, and Richard Dawson. Where musical guests are concerned, perhaps none made a greater impact on the series than the Season One opener’s guest of Tiny Tim, whose performance is as hysterically weird as I recall it having been when I’d see him on TV as a kid.

The list of people who appeared as series guests is absolutely insane in retrospect. You’ll see folks drop in like Vincent Price, Orson Welles, Leonard Nimoy, Bob Hope, Sonny & Cher, Don Rickles, Peter Sellers, Rock Hudson, Truman Capote, Ringo Starr, Roger Moore, Tony Curtis, John Wayne, Liza Minelli, and even, in a now legendary bit, a brief cameo by Richard Nixon spouting the series’ catchphrase: “Sock it to me!” And that’s just a partial list off the top of my head. Just look up a more complete list elsewhere and you’ll be stunned to see how many notables they had drop by, often to simply spout a few one-liners randomly inserted throughout the episode.

The 38-disc collection of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series is only currently available through Time Life. The set not only includes the 140 episodes of the series itself, but also boasts over 6 hours of special features, including the 25th Anniversary Cast Reunion; interviews with Lily Tomlin, George Schlatter, Dick Martin, Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Arte Johnson, and Alan Sues; a tribute to George Schlatter; a featurette about the series’ Emmy win; bloopers; and of course, the pilot episode. If you’re interested in ordering the set yourself, you should visit http://timelife.com/products/laughin or call 1-800-950-7887. If you’re looking for a set less daunting than the Complete Series, though, Time Life also offers The Best of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a 12-DVD variant including 40 instead of 140 episodes.

Either way, the pace of the series makes it unlikely that anyone would be physically or mentally capable of marathoning these sets. After all, it was a show designed to be watched for one hour a week. That, to my mind, is a good thing though. It means you’ll get a lot of mileage out of whatever collection you opt in for.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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