Laugh-In in 2019? You bet your sweet bippy!
Before Saturday Night Live, there was Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, NBC's 1968–73 primetime sketch comedy show, created by producer George Schlatter (The Judy Garland Show), hosted by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin and featuring soon-to-be superstars such as Goldie Hawn.
The series changed the TV landscape with wacky skits, silly catchphrases, surprising guest appearances (Richard Nixon saying "sock it to me" on the show reportedly helped boost his 1968 presidential bid) and political commentary aplenty.
Netflix recaptures the zany magic with Still Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate, a special taped in March at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre. More than 50 years after the show's debut, cast members including Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi and Jo Anne Worley and celebrity fans such as Tiffany Haddish, Veep's Tony Hale and Michael Douglas paid tribute to the iconic series and re-created classic sketches like the Joke Wall. (For the unfamiliar: Cast and guests pop out of windows to spew one-liners like "Give a man a fish, you'll feed him for a day. Give a vegan a fish, you'll get accused of a hate crime!"
Of course, no Laugh-In special would be complete without Tomlin treating viewers to her iconic characters Ernestine, the unhelpful telephone operator and Edith Ann, a precocious 5-year-old in an oversized rocking chair. Here, Tomlin opens up about the event and what Laugh-In — which landed at 42 on TV Guide Magazine's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list in 2002 — meant to her career.
Back then, there was nothing else like Laugh-In on TV. You guys really pushed the envelope!
Lily Tomlin: [George] was playful and [the cast] were a bunch of naughty kids on the playground who wanted to cause harmless trouble but still wanted to get away with something. [Stuff like] the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award [the show's equivalent of giving a notable figure the middle finger] was all part of Laugh-In's language.
Was the show tightly scripted or was it loose?
There was a lot of free play. We'd have so many people on the show — Johnny Carson, Jack Benny — and as they showed up, George would start writing one-liners, and we would go downstairs, change costumes and George would give us a paper. We'd read the joke and then go out and say it.
Is it fair to say Ernestine helped get you cast on Laugh-In?
I was doing Ernestine in my [stand-up] act, which I had to beg people to book. She was one of many characters I did. And George saw me…and just loved them. He also saw me do Lucille the Rubber Freak [on The Merv Griffin Show], about a woman who was addicted to eating rubber objects. He loves that. He always asks me to do it whenever we're someplace with anybody who might be remotely unfamiliar with it.
Is it easy to step back into the characters like you did on the special?
I've never stopped doing them. People expect me to do Ernestine and Edith. [When I perform live], the audience would mug me in the parking lot on the way out [if I didn’t]!
You reunited with former costars Ruth and Jo Anne. Do you see them often nowadays?
I don't see Ruth because she lives in Texas, but I hear from her. I see Jo Anne often and she's just wonderfully audacious. She's just the same!
How did it feel to be onstage with everyone again?
I was terribly pleased with the show. The night of the taping, there were like 3,000 people and everybody was just over the moon.
Do you think Laugh-In could exist today?
The way they blended the old and the new jokes [on the special] worked. It was amazing to see, and it just seemed seamless. And I thought, "Well, it certainly could recur."
Overall, what did Laugh-In do for your career?
It was the best thing that ever happened to me, absolutely. I was terribly fortunate to fall into that show at the time. I don't know where else I would've had an outlet like that.
Still Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate, Special Premiere, Tuesday, May 14, Netflix
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