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Best of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In

Rhino // Unrated // June 24, 2003
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted August 23, 2003 | E-mail the Author

The Show

"You know, I think 'God Save The Queen' was first written for Oscar Wilde."

"Boris and I have the most violent political arguments. He thinks the Democrats can do no wrong, and of course I'm for Johnson."

And all this from 1968 network television, folks. Sharp, smart, risqué, brimming with innuendo, irreverent, topical, caustic yet good-natured, and above all, funny, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In revolutionized television almost overnight. Every Monday evening at 8:00 P.M. from 1968 to 1973, upwards of 40 million viewers would tune in to NBC to partake of the show's swinging, lightning-paced humor, silly sketch comedy, barely choreographed dance numbers, and copious shots of a young, nubile Goldie Hawn prancing about half-naked. Yes, hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, the ultimate straight guys clad in formal-wear and sporting haughty, self-deprecating veneers, guided the viewer through a host of gags, non-sequiturs, comedy bits, and bouts of extreme silliness and rampant, thinly-veiled sexuality. Announcer Gary Owens would welcome the viewers to "beautiful downtown Burbank", and, alongisde Rowan, Martin, Owens, and Hawn, cast members Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi, Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, Dave "Reuben Kincaid" Maddan, and Jo Anne Worley introduced American to such illuminating catchphrases as "Verrrrry interesting", "You bet your sweet bippy", and of course the immortal "Sock it to me!"

The latter catchphrase is particular interesting, as it became the show's signature line. They even got then-President Nixon to utter the phrase in Episode #15 ("Sock it... to me?!!") The running gag was that anybody who uttered the phrase would end up splashed with a bucket of water, hit by a punching bag, smacked by a giant caveman club, dropped through a trapdoor, or pelted with ping-pong balls. Usually, the victim ended up being Judy Carne, who would utter the line nervously while peering around in expectation of the imminent violent outcome. Poor girl. No wonder she left the show after two seasons.

Many of the show's recurring bits became television legend. The "Cocktail Party" routine always got the show started. A room full of brightly-garbed (and sometimes scantily clad) young ladies along a gaggle of goofy guys would swing and gyrate to some bouncy, pseudo-rock/pseudo-swing music, with the music and dancing suddenly stopping so various characters could utter their zingers and one-liners, to varying degrees of hilarity. At the end of the show, the cast would say goodbye to their audience with "The Joke Wall." With the entire group behind the wall, each cast member would open up a panel revealing their face, during which time they would... um, utter their zingers and one-liners, to varying degrees of hilarity. Between the opening and ending were a rapid-fire succession of quick sketches, comedy bits, comical musical numbers, quick reaction shots from a host of guest stars, and the... um, utterance of zingers and one-liners, to varying degrees of hilarity.

I think you're getting the point by now.

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In is certainly dated in too many ways. The jokes, the sensibilities, the smoking (!), the fashions, the music, and the overall style of the show is firmly rooted in the late 60s/early 70s. But it works, and it works brilliantly. I won't profess to get every Spiro T. Agnew or Hubert Humphrey reference, but it's barely necessary to appreciate this show. Created and produced by George Schlatter, Laugh-In's zany style and quick wit influenced dozens of shows that emerged in the decades to come, including Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, and, unfortunately, scores of those horrific "variety shows" that plagued the landscape of 1970s television. But you can't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and this baby needs to be seen and appreciated by both old fans and a new generation of people who revel in silliness. Thankfully, Rhino's release of The Best of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In on DVD is like a quick shot of Vitamin E... in your... um... sweet bippy.

The following six shows are included in this set:

Disc One:

  • Show #3: February 5, 1968
  • Show #9: March 25, 1968

Disc Two:

  • Show #15: September 16, 1968
  • Show #60: February 2, 1970

Disc Three:

  • Show #32: February 3, 1969
  • Show #61: February 9, 1970


Allow me to be perfectly blunt, folks: The Best of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In showcases videotaped television that aired upwards of thirty-five years ago. Thus, reasonable expectations must be engendered when rating the video on this DVD. That having been said, the video presentation on the DVD is absolutely wonderful... for thirty-five year old television videotape. Colors are relatively stable, occasionally oversaturated and bleeding, with some unnatural looking fleshtones. Some visible magnetic noise is also present. The transfer is extremely clean, with a lack of compression noise or other pesky telltale artifacts. There is definite ringing and shimmering around light sources, as well as some visible ghosting. Sharpness levels are varying throughout, with decent detail in some scenes and some softness in many others. Now here's the important thing to remember: all of these complaints are due to the age and limitations of the original source material. In other words, the video on this DVD is a fine presentation of limited material. I highly doubt it could look much better than it does.

The audio is showcased in monaural Dolby Digital 2.0, and is fairly unremarkable other than to say that the material is well served. Dialog comes across naturally if a little boxy, lacking discernable hiss, noise, or distortion. Music and orchestrations seem fine, if again of limited fidelity.

Each disc in the three-disc set contains an interview with one of Laugh-In's cast members. Disc One contains a twenty-one minute Interview with Gary Owens, Disc Two's Interview with Ruth Buzzi runs for twenty-four minutes, and Disc Three's Interview with Arte Johnson goes the distance at a full twenty-five minutes. All three cast members discuss their history with the show: where they were before the show started, their feelings on the show, their roles, and its production, and how it affected their career afterwards. Gary Owens has the greatest voice, ever. I could listen to him read the phone book and find it intriguing. I was also surprised by Buzzi's revelation that she wasn't too enamored of her beloved Gladys character, but given Glady's one-dimensional nature I can certainly understand why. Arte spends considerably time discussing how his musical training and multicultural neighborhood assisted him in the perfection of his various dialects. For fans of the show, these interviews are such a treat and extremely enjoyable.

The box set also comes with two interesting features: a fascinating and lengthy essay by creator George Schlatter, as well as a very creatively-designed miniature fold-out "Joke Wall" embedded into the packaging.

Final Thoughts

Finally, I understand all of the references contained in the classic "The Simpsons Smile-Time Variety Hour" bit. In any case, I enjoyed every last moment I spent with The Best of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a fine collection of television hilarity on DVD as I've ever reviewed. Some fans might be wondering where are the "Seasonal" box sets of Laugh-In, instead of this collection of "Best-Of" shows (more "Best-Of" volumes are coming in the future.) I would imagine it's a matter of reasonable expectations of the demand for this series; since Laugh-In is not episodic situational-comedy, I suppose the yearning for the series in chronological order isn't quite as clamorous as it is for, say, something like M.A.S.H. or All In The Family.

Rhino's DVD collection of The Best of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In is certainly an enjoyable way to spend upwards of five hours in stitches. Perhaps the humor isn't for everyone, which is why I give this set a mild Recommended rating rather than a strong Rent It. Surely humor is subjective, but only the very interesting Laugh-In really socks it to ya... and you can bet your sweet bippy on it!

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