The Best Of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (DVD)

The Best Of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (DVD)

Both hopelessly old-fashioned and revolutionary, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In tried to be all things to all people, and for a while it succeeded. A body-painted, go-go-dancing, pun-loving mass of contradictions, Laugh-In was the sort of show where winking nods to pot, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution shared space with appearances by Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Mr. Magoo, Richard Nixon, and jokes that even undiscriminating vaudeville audiences would have found tired. The Best Of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In collects six hours of the rapid-fire comedy series, and while much of it has aged as poorly as might be expected, the three-disc set serves as a fascinating sociological artifact of the swinging '60s. The halfway point between Hellzapoppin and MTV, Ernie Kovacs and Saturday Night Live (whose creator, Lorne Michaels, was a staff writer), Laugh-In plugged into the cultural zeitgeist like few shows before or since. Groovy in an endearingly dated way, the show captured the relentless thrust of a time when the rules were constantly re-written and old taboos were rapidly demolished. Genial ringmasters Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, a comedy team in the traditional mold, use smooth patter and a familiar dynamic to keep the show from hurtling into abstraction. Repeated bits–most notably the show-ending joke wall and the party, where cast members stop shimmying just long enough to deliver one-liners–also help provide some semblance of continuity, as do recurring characters and a relentless use of catchphrases that makes SNL look restrained by comparison. Speed is the show's principal weapon: Few bits lasted longer than 30 seconds, and most flew by even faster. Before audiences had time to digest a groan-inducing gag, two or three more were being rolled out. The show's supersonic pace is most glaring in the episode hosted by Benny, whose leisurely comic style renders the installment the comic equivalent of the tortoise vs. the hare. Benny's discomfort becomes a running joke, just one of the many metatextual touches of a series that was aggressively postmodern before such a thing was hip. Laugh-In's nonstop rush of kaleidoscopic, barely related images bordered on avant-garde: Few shows have relied as heavily on editing, or employed it in as radical a fashion. In a way, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In was the Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle of its day. Each is a whirring, buzzing, tacky, sexed-up, garishly postmodern contraption that winks nonstop to let its audience know it's in on the joke. Literally and figuratively, Laugh-In never tires of laughing at itself, and nobody does more inspired chuckling than its breakout star, Goldie Hawn, who seems to spend half her time on the show giggling. Her atomic radiance and apparent lack of self-consciousness remain fresh and magnetic four decades, a famous daughter, and countless shitty films later. The same can't always be said of the show that launched her, but it remains strangely hypnotic and compulsively watchable.

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