Sensor Scan: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In

The question of exactly how radical and progressive a television show can get when it’s airing on major network television and supported by corporate advertising and ratings is an interesting one. On the surface the answer seems like a flat “not in the slightest”: Simply put, it’s a rather noticeable conflict of interest to have a work deeply invested in overturning the current social order dependent on the tools and infrastructure of the very hegemony it’s set itself in opposition to. On the other hand, one does sort of hope there’s at least a little-wiggle room for this kind of thing in pop culture mass media: If you’re a young person just starting to come to terms with your worldview and unaware of big underground counterculture movements, it’s really helpful to be able to turn on the TV and see you’re not completely alone, especially in a world without the Internet.

In the past, we’ve looked at this issue on the context of Star Trek: Supposedly the most forward-thinking and youth-embracing show on television in the late 1960s, the Original Series has in truth proven to be somewhat changeable on the ethics front. There have been moments that seem to support this claim, most noticeably in the last third of the second season, but there have also been just as many, if not more, that would seem to give the indication Star Trek was anything but, and in truth pretty regularly and reliably (and disturbingly) reactionary. But that’s Star Trek, and in spite of the numerous overtures it can and has made towards a more socially-conscious approach, it’s still burdened by some pretty major liabilities (in particular the one named Gene Roddenberry) and its potential to make a positive impact is frustratingly not always as clear as it should be. The question remains though: Can you have a truly countercultural television show? We can, in fact, take an even broader scope: Can you have countercultural Soda Pop Art at all?

In my opinion, the only real satisfactory answer is “yes and no”, and for a good example let’s take a look at the other iconic NBC show of 1968, and the show that kicked Star Trek out of its primetime slot: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Conceived by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin as an evolution of the “straight man/dumb guy” act they had honed in nightclubs, Laugh-In was a weekly sketch comedy show most famous for its innovative style marked by rapid-fire editing that cut between various discrete images and scenarios. The jokes and sketches on Laugh-In were frequently only seconds in length, just there long enough to deliver a punchline before cutting away to something completely different. The show lasted an impressively long time, from 1968 until 1973, and helped launch the careers of future luminaries like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin, not to mention Lorne Michaels, a staff writer on Laugh-In who would go on to produce Saturday Night Live.

The most obvious thing that set Laugh-In apart from its predecessors in television and stage comedy, and what it’s most remembered for, is its overt courting of the 1960s counterculture, and in particular the Mods and the Hippies.…

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