Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dick Martin

The zany, zinger-full half of the comedy duo Rowan and Martin passed away yesterday. His career included stand-up comedy, sitcom appearances, and television direction, but Martin reached the zenith of his career as co-host of one of the most influential programs in television history, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.
In the early 1960s, Martin was a recurring regular on The Lucy Show, playing straight man to Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, while continuing his partnership with Dan Rowan on the nightclub circuit. The duo received their big break when pegged to host Dean Martin's summer replacement series, a 12 week gig which proved their ability to host an hour-long variety show. NBC set about creating a series for Rowan and Martin.

In the 1968 season, spy-thriller The Man from U.N.C.L.E. faltered in the ratings, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In was born.
The series broke with the traditional variety show format, replacing it with frenetic skits and one-liners delivered by a young cast of first-class clowns:

JoAnne (is that a chicken joke?) Worley

Arte (verrrrry interesting...but stupid) Johnson

Ruth (wanna buy a walnetto?) Buzzi

Henry (a Henry Gibson) Gibson

Judy (sock it to me) Carne

Gary (from beautiful downtown Burbank) Owens

The show launched the careers of two women who became bona fide stars:

Goldie (giggles) Hawn

and a comic genius who joined the show in its second season:

Lily (Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?) Tomlin

Laugh-In brought political and social humor to network television, and its various set pieces (The Cocktail Party, The Joke Wall, and most importantly, "Laugh-In Looks at the News") set the stage for later satirical series such as Saturday Night Live (Lorne Michaels worked on the show years before creating SNL) and The Daily Show. The program created half a dozen catch phrases which were gleefully welcomed by a general public in social turmoil: "Here come da' judge", "Look it up in your Funk and Waggonal's", and "You bet your bippy", among those cited above. The show also created a novelty star out of a freaky ukulele player with a hippy look and falsetto voice, Tiny Tim. Thanks to his appearances on Laugh-In, this oddball actually hit the top 40 chart with his rendition of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

Presiding over this chaos, Dan Rowan's exasperated set-ups and Dick Martin's cool obliviousness opened and closed the show. Laugh-In (it took its name from the sit-in protests which were happening on college campuses at the time) was an immediate smash, and topped the Neilson ratings its first two seasons. As many of the original loonies left the show, the program began a swift decline, but I was one of the viewers who hung with the show throughout its run, when later comics such as Alan Sues, Dave Madden, Fannie Flagg, and Patty Deutsch were unable to rescue the show.

In their post Laugh-In years, most of the original players continue to entertain. Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin have gone on to award-winning projects, JoAnne Worley returned to the stage, Ruth Buzzi contributes to humanitarian causes and appears regularly on children's programing, and Henry Gibson is a well-respected dramatic actor.

As for Dick Martin, he went on to become a sought-after television director, responsible for much of the success of both Bob Newhart's hit sitcoms. But I'll always remember him with the goofy grin, handing out the Fickle Finger of Fate Award to some politician embroiled in a scandal, or some celebrity who had overstayed her welcome.

Say good night, Dick.