DirectorGeorge Schlatter (creator), Gordon Wiles, Mark Warren
Release Date(s)1971-27 (July 10, 2018)
Studio(s)SFM Entertainment/NBC (Time Life/WEA)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: C-
- Extras Grade: N/A
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Fifth Season continued its series of comedy sketches, one-liners, regular features, sight gags, non-sequiturs, and political jabs that made the weekly one-hour show a favorite with viewers. Season 5 (1971-1972) contained the milestone 100th episode with former cast members Arte Johnson, Judy Carne, Jo Anne Worley, Henry Gibson, and Teresa Graves returning for the event. Even Tiny Tim, who had created a sensation when he sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the show, was back. Lily Tomlin, who joined the show in Season 3, was on hand to portray Ernestine, the rude, horse-faced telephone operator, and Edith Ann, a five-year-old on a giant rocking chair who precociously gave forth pronouncements on life.
Debuting on NBC in January, 1968, Laugh-In replaced The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on Monday evenings at 8 P.M. and became an instant success. The format was innovative. Variety shows of the time relied on singers, comedy bits, and sometimes dancing. Laugh-In dispensed with that formula. Combining broad comedy with topical satire, the show featured a cast of regulars led by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin who, in the roles of straight man and fool, riffed on contemporary topics. Gary Owens, hand to his ear, was the on-screen announcer whose deep, authoritative newscaster’s voice belied his bizarre commentary. Goldie Hawn was the resident daffy blonde, often fluffing her lines and cracking up on camera. Ruth Buzzi, Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, Jo Anne Worley, Pigmeat Markham, and Eileen Brennan rounded out the original regular cast.
Though the show had a freewheeling vibe, there were several regular features. Running gags would be set up and built upon throughout the show. The Cocktail Party sequence would have the entire cast dancing with frequent pauses to focus on individual performers delivering one-liners. Laugh-In Looks at the News of the Past, Present and Future would look at events through a time machine prism. Rowan and Martin would bestow the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award on someone who made headlines for less than admirable reasons. Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby would be harassed by Johnson’s decrepit dirty old man and eventually slug him repeatedly with her pocketbook. Johnson, dressed as a German soldier with cigarette holder in hand, would peer periodically from behind studio shrubbery to comment “Verrrrry interesting.” The Joke Wall, inspired by classic farce, had cast members emerge in rapid succession from a wall of windows to deliver jokes.
By Season 5, many of the original cast had departed, but the celebrity cameos continued. Guests this season included Raquel Welch, Johnny Carson, Buffalo Bob Smith, Howdy Doody, Janet Leigh, Carroll O’Connor, Bing Crosby, Liza Minnelli, Tony Curtis, Jack LaLanne, Henny Youngman, Carl Reiner, John Wayne, Paul Lynde, Gene Hackman, Robert Goulet, Debbie Reynolds, Hugh Hefner, Steve Allen, Rita Hayworth, and Jacqueline Susann.
Today, some of the references from the early 1970s might be lost on viewers. The first show of the season, for instance, features guest Martha Mitchell, who was the wife of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell. She was famous at the time for being outspoken and was frequently a guest on talk shows. Today, however, she’s largely a footnote of history. References to newsmakers of the period may result in blank stares, though the in-studio audience obviously “got” the gags.
By the fifth season, NBC was getting nervous. President Nixon made it clear he no longer wanted Laugh-In on the air. Network executives informed executive producer George Schlatter that the show would no longer be allowed to do political humor. Despite the controversy, Laugh-In went on to a final, sixth season.
All 24 episodes of the 1971-1972 season are contained on the 6-DVD set. Not every bit in every show will connect with every viewer. Older viewers who recall the early 70s will respond more favorably to the topical gags. Younger viewers will be at a loss. Even some of the celebrity cameos might be puzzling to viewers under 30.
An enclosed booklet contains a background essay from executive producer George Schlatter and a listing of each program, including original air date, guest stars, a brief synopsis of content, and a color photo from that show. This is extremely helpful in locating specific stars and sketches.
Picture quality doesn’t hold up to modern standards, but because the pace is so brisk, this isn’t a major drawback. The sound, however, has been recorded very low. I had to raise the volume control many notches above normal to hear properly.
- Dennis Seuling