Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series (DVD)

Few television programs hit the airwaves with the impact of “Rowan & Martin Laugh-In.” With its rapid-fire skein of zany sketches, topical humor, hipster catch phrases, go-go dancing, and zeitgeist-hugging mod fashions and pop-art production design, the program defined the spirit the free-wheeling and often chaotic late 1960s and early 1970s.

In retrospect, the program had little in the way of genuine originality. Its quickie skits and often-surreal blackout gags were borrowed from such diverse sources as the Olsen and Johnson revues and Ernie Kovacs’ groundbreaking television specials, while the tart observations of the sociopolitical issues of the day were absorbed from “That Was the Week That Was,” a 1963-1965 show that is now considered a lost production because none of its episodes except for the pilot are known to survive.

As for the hosts, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, they were hardly hip and trendy – the duo had years of nightclub engagements, occasional TV guest appearances and one flop B-movie to their credit. But “Laugh-In” put them in the right place at the right time, with the backing of a large ensemble of enthusiastic performers who joked, sang and did double-takes as if the world’s fate depended on them – including Goldie Hawn (shown here with Judy Carne and Chelsea Brown) and Lily Tomlin, who graduated to big-screen success after this small-screen breakthrough. A seemingly endless parade of guest stars enlivened the shenanigans with gag appearances, including a Richard Nixon asking the deadpan question “Sock it to me?” while he was running for president in 1968.

This DVD collection packs all six seasons together, and when viewed in chronological order it is invigorating to see how the program evolved from an often unsteady first season to the more assured second and third seasons, which represented the show’s peak. An overhaul of the ensemble by the fourth season did not work to the show’s advantage, which chugged along for two more seasons with its cutting edge slowly growing duller.

Younger viewers watching “Laugh-In” today may miss the meaning in jokes referring to then-important-but-now-mostly-forgotten political figures like Lester Maddox, Spiro Agnew and Martha Mitchell. And survivors of that era might wince in recalling the fashions of that distant time. But fans of old-school Hollywood will enjoy seeing the line-up of icons who gamely participated in the program’s often-wild antics, and much of the show’s humor still holds up quite well.