Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bringing Back the Bippy

Dan Rowan and the lovely Dick Martin.
Maybe it's the state of our world, but humor has become a good deal more important to me lately. When I was in junior high (secondary school) and planning a way I might emulate my older fanzine-publishing friends, I spent some serious time daydreaming about launching a humor fanzine; I was going to call it LOONY and I had even designed a mascot for its cover: Irving Lathbeap, a shameless hayseed variation on Alfred E. Neuman. (His surname came from a list of anagrams found in one of my textbooks.) I ended up doing a couple of horror film fanzines instead. While my nostalgia for classic horror films ultimately won out and put me on a scenic route to my eventual career, I must admit to an almost-as-strong nostalgic pull for the comedy I absorbed in my pre- and early-teens: MAD and CRACKED magazine, W.C. Fields, George Carlin, The Firesign Theatre. And recently, I've been inclining back to all that: I've been doting on my MAD Magazine collection and filling in some gaps; perusing some cheaply acquired early issues of CRACKED and SICK (I was amazed to discover that SICK actually once carried reviews of off-the-wall movies like Marco Ferreri's THE APE WOMAN!); reading for the first time Harvey Kurtzman's work on HUMBUG and TRUMP, recently collected in beautiful hardcover editions; and delighting in Time-Life's recent release of  ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (4 DVDs, $14.99).

For many years, it has been impossible to see LAUGH-IN in its original form. The official word was that the original broadcast versions of ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN no longer survived, that the tapes had been cut-down and reassembled into half-hour shows for syndication, without any thought to preserving them in their original form. Then, just last month, Time-Life began to unleash a veritable tsunami of LAUGH-IN viewing options. In addition to the First Season set, there is THE BEST OF ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN (12 DVDs each, $178.99) and ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE SERIES (all six seasons on 38 discs, $254.95). Time-Life will be following through with the COMPLETE SECOND SEASON set in early 2018, and you can also find THE COMPLETE SERIES available directly from their website, payable on a convenient installment plan.

Tiny Tim's national debut stuns Dick Martin.
I saw the first season during its original run when I was eleven years old, and because so much of the material was either news-topical or risqué, a certain amount of it went over my head, but the sheer verve and invention of the delivery made it funny anyway. The impact of LAUGH-IN's premiere is something I can only compare to Beatlemania and Batmania; I had the tie-in paperback, the soundtrack album, even a run of LAUGH-IN magazines. In a sense, NBC and the show's producers manufactured this excitement (didn't they all, to some extent?) but its carousel-like format, its constant influx of new regulars and surprise guest stars (John Wayne! Tiny Tim! Hugh Downs! Richard Nixon!), its incessant dropping of new catch phrases into the zeitgeist (Sock it to me! Here come the Judge! You bet your sweet bippy! Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's. Goodnight, Dick!) kept it exciting for a remarkably long time. Yes, you probably had to be there - and now you can.

Jo Anne Worley's MAD magazine ad.
Revisiting the first season now, I have found myself not only getting more out of the comedy and better appreciating the broad mix of its talent, but more conscious of its myriad influences - notably old time radio, MAD magazine (series regular Jo Anne Worley had been a cast member of the Broadway hit THE MAD SHOW and had even participated in at least one of MAD's own faux ads), PLAYBOY, THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON, Richard Lester films, THE MONKEES (early episodes included primitive rock video segments), certain kaleidoscopic European films like Louis Malle's ZAZIE, and the vast pop cultural landscape that was the 1960s. It's also fascinating to observe how hugely influential the show and its veterans became. LAUGH-IN was certainly one of the models for MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, even PLAYBOY AFTER DARK, and Arte Johnson's timid Polish immigrant character who suddenly bursts into apoplectic Broadway show tunes shows a very direct line to Andy Kaufman's Foreign Man character. Well before SNL, several members of LAUGH-IN's uniquely wacky ensemble branched off into film careers (Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Eileen Brennan, Henry Gibson) but most of them gravitated to drama rather than comedy. Even Rowan and Martin failed to spin-off into a feature film career, with 1969's THE MALTESE BIPPY faring no better commercially than their forgotten 1958 film debut ONCE UPON A HORSE.

The first issue of LAUGH-IN Magazine.
There might be some understandable trepidation about referring back to 50 year old topical humor, but - as with classic Warner Bros. cartoons, which pack their own supply of sometimes head-scratching WWII references and movie and radio star impressions - most of what's here is funny because it's wild and crazy. If you get the historical associations, it's remarkable how often the jokes strike one as still relevant or even prophetic. (I haven't seen it yet, but I seem to remember one of the show's "News of the Past, Present and Future" jokes referring to future President Ronald Reagan - and getting a big laugh.) The FIRST SEASON set also includes the trial balloon special from September 1967 (hilarious) and highlights from a 25th Anniversary reunion (where Dick Martin scores some bonus points with a sober and clear-eyed recollection of exactly what his late partner Dan Rowan brought to their partnership).   

The surviving complete material is sourced from analog tape masters, which isn't of good enough quality to warrant Blu-ray presentation, but is certainly good enough for the viewer to see the difference between what was shot on tape (the in-studio stuff) and what was shot on 16mm (the dancing body paint girls, the exterior vignettes, the guy in the rainwear falling over on the tricycle). I recommend you give the COMPLETE FIRST SEASON set a try (at $15, the price is right) - especially if you've seen the cannibalized half-hours and imagine that the hour shows are just more of the same. Those TV syndication compendiums were cut to please the short attention spans of the lowest common denominator and omitted some of the show's cleverest musical comedy extravaganzas. If you're at all like me, you'll probably find yourself pining for the COMPLETE SERIES box before you know it.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.   

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