“And Now Folks, It’s Sock It To Me Time! (Almost!)”
by Jeff Baker
The first official episode of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” aired on NBC on January 22, 1968. Airing just a few months after the pilot was shown in September 1967, it is a marked improvement. While the pilot was (and still is) genuinely funny the first series episode has tightened up the pacing and added a few features that would become nationally known over the next few years.
The pacing is noticeably faster, and the sketches reduced mostly to blackouts and one-liners. The regular features. Like the Laugh-In News and the Party (with lines like: “George is so square he thinks Planned Parenthood is living with his mother.”) are established in their largely final forms.
The cast for the first few seasons is established, the notable addition is announcer Gary Owens. Owens and Ruth Buzzi would stick with the show through all six seasons and appear in almost every episode. Only Dan and Dick would be in every show plus the pilot. And besides doing their nightclub routines and introducing segments, they are adept at playing various characters, something they didn’t get a lot of credit for during the show’s run.
The blackout segments, quickie gags that play like a magazine cartoon, are the bulk of the show and many are still laugh out loud funny today: a recurring bit with Dick as a passenger in an elevator. Several funny moments involving doors and Judy Carne trying to play ping-pong with varying degrees of success. Many of these are done with no dialogue. Tapping a vein Ernie Kovacs mined and that Benny Hill would later tap into.
(In one of the show’s few serious moments, they would pay tribute to Kovacs and acknowledge his influence in a later episode.)
The major topical sketch, involving L.B.J. in bed as family and pols join him to talk about their problems wasn’t as funny as it may have been once, but the Laugh-In News still had some bite, particularly the “News of the Future,” which was introduced as “twenty years from now” but was actually for 1984.
Guests included Flip Wilson and cameos by Leo G. Carroll (referencing his recently-canceled “Man From UNCLE” which Laugh-in” had replaced.)
Dan uses the phrase “fickle finger of fate” even though they do not give out or reference the award they would later actually present to the recipients like the Pentagon (which won several!) The Fickle Finger of Fate fanfare is heard later in the show introducing a salute to The Establishment.
This episode has “Sock It To ‘Em Time,” they would change the phrase later, but semi-regular Barbara Feldon and guest Carroll become the first on the show to utter the famous “Sock it to me” line. Carroll’s presages Nixon’s upcoming cameo and his astounded “Sock it to Me?!”
This episode may be the only one to present a real musical act in its “New Talent” segment. The band Strawberry Alarm Clock was featured in what would later become a music video and would have fit perfectly on MTV. The other act, a solo, was a literally unknown singer whose freakish appearance and falsetto voice was probably regarded as a joke by the producers, but the joke was on them: Tiny Tim was a hit and would become as associated with the show as Rowan and Martin and the publicity may have helped with the show’s success.
January 1968 was the beginning of what would be a singularly unfunny year but somehow Laugh-In would give the country reasons to laugh through the months ahead. And a lot of their humor still holds up.
You bet your sweet bippy!