IN THE CROWDED BALLROOM OF LOEWS Santa Monica Beach Hotel—a mere 20 miles from “beautiful downtown Burbank,” where Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In made its series debut 25 years ago—cohost Dick Martin is still crowing about the show. “We look on the National Rifle Association, the KKK, the Pentagon and the whole city of Cleveland,” he says. “We just gave them the Fickle Finger of Fate.” That, of course, was Laugh-Ins weekly booby prize.
In another corner of the room, the show’s announcer, Gary Owns, 56, and costar Dave Madden, 59, are chatting behind a replica of the show’s Joke Wall, from whose built-in windows the cast would loss zingers at each other. Tiny Tim, 62, whose Laugh-In guest shots helped launch his career, is wandering about with Miss Jan, Wife No. 2. And high above the din, the familiar high-pitched giggle of Goldie Hawn can be heard.
“How can I describe this?” wonders Laugh-In creator-producer George Schlatter as he basks in the nostalgia-soaked atmosphere. Schlatter, 60, has reunited his cast for Rowan and Martin Laugh-In 25th Anniversary Special (airing Feb. 7 on NBC). “How can you describe a hot shower? You don’t remember any one drop. You just remember the wonderful experience.”
Indeed you do. Waaaay before Wayne’s World, and even before Saturday Night Live, the liveliest night on TV was Monday. That’s when Martin and his stand-up partner, Dan Rowan, led a talented troupe of mostly unknowns through a dizzying, MTV-paced hour of satirical skits, silly sight gags and weird one-liners. “Sock it to me,” “You bet your sweet bippy,” “Here come de judge” and “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls” all became part of the national lexicon. And for the first two of its five seasons on NBC (1968-1973), Laugh-In reigned as prime time’s top-rated show.
A quarter-century later, Laugh-In’s fans have not forgotten the series or those who put the laughs in—and Lily Tomlin, for one, is amazed. Tomlin, 53, appeared on the show’s last three seasons, then moved on to movies (Nashville, All of Me) and the stage (Broadway’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe). But she still encounters strangers who come up to her and say, “One ringy-dingy…Two ringy-dingy”—in homage to Ernestine, the madcap, purse-lipped telephone operator she introduced as a character on the show.
Martin, too, marvels at the series’ slaying power. A few years ago, he was playing at a pro-am golf tournament in Pebble Beach, Calif., when he heard some spectators cry out, “Say good night, Dick!”—Laugh-In’s weekly curtain line. Today at 70, Martin says “Cut!” as a successful TV director (Bob). He and wife Dolly, who have one grown son, reside in Malibu, not far from the reunion site. “I’m sure if Dan were here,” Martin says of Rowan, who was 65 when he died of lymphatic cancer in 1987, “he’d be very happy for the same reason I am. It’s like we never left. Ruthie looks the same. Goldie looks exactly the same. It’s spooky.”
Indeed, Hawn, 47, even sounds the same. “I got this rush of happiness when I saw her,” says Barbara Feldon, 53, who appeared in Laugh-In’s first five episodes but is better remembered as Get Smart’s Agent 99. Feldon, single, is now living in New York City, where she does commercial voice-overs. Henry Gibson, 57, Laugh-Ins poet-in-residence, comes by and gives Hawn a hug. He now lives in Malibu with his wife, Lois (they have three sons), and does voice-overs for cartoons. Bachelor Alan Sues, who was Laugh-In’s campy Uncle Al and has since worked steadily in touring productions, ambles over to ask Goldie, “So what have you been up to since the show?” Goldie giggles.
As Sues well knows, Hawn leaped from Laugh-In to the big screen after just two seasons and won an Oscar for Cactus Flower. Now, two dozen films later, she and Kurt Russell, 41, her live-in love of 10 years, share their L.A. and Aspen digs with son Wyatt, 6, as well as Kate, 13, and Oliver, 16, Hawn’s two children from her previous marriage to entertainer Bill Hudson. And she has been showing oft photos of the kids to all her old cast mates, especially Ruth Buzzi.
“Ruthie and I were best friends on Laugh-In,” says Hawn. “We don’t see each other much anymore, but tonight we just picked up from where we were the last time we talked.”
Buzzi, who played frumpy spinster Gladys Ormphby, remained wedded to Laugh-In for ail five seasons. Today, she says wistfully, “I just wish we were all still back doing the show.” Since its demise, Buzzi has stayed busy in radio ads and as a voice on cartoon shows. Now living in L.A. with her second husband, Kent Perkins, an independent film producer, Buzzi reunited with Sues last year for a Houston production of Cinderella: She was the evil stepmother, he was an evil stepsister.
Arte Johnson and Jo Anne Worley have also kept a foothold in theater. Johnson, 59, was Laugh-In’s little old man, Tyrone, and its “verrrry interesting” German soldier. He has to cut short his schmoozing with fellow Laughers so he can dash off to La Mirada, an L.A. suburb, where he’s appearing in a revival of The Sunshine Boys. He and Gisela, his wife of 24 years, live in Los Angeles. Worley, wed for 17 years to actor Roger Perry, is a no-show at the reunion—not because she considered it “Bor-ing!” (her Laugh-In catch phrase), but because she is busy rehearsing for a Hello, Dolly! production in Houston.
Also absent is Flip Wilson, 59, a last-minute no-show because he was anxious, he says, about rain-loosened boulders striking his Malibu home. But Chelsea Brown, the first black woman in the cast, has flown in from Sydney, her home for 17 years. She lives with actor Vic Rooney, who played her husband on the Aussie soap E Street.
Judy Carne has also come a long way, but it has been a different kind of journey. Now living in her native England, Carne, 53, the show’s “sock it to me” girl, really got socked after leaving Laugh-In in 1970. Her career went nowhere, and in 1978 the twice-divorced Carrie (her first husband was Burt Reynolds) was arrested—and acquitted—three times on drug charges. Carne, now drug-free, is writing a screenplay loosely based on her 1985 autobiography, Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside. “When the show was over,” says Carne, “I was really lost. This was my family. And tonight everyone’s been very supportive of me.”
Through the years that camaraderie has been a constant. When Carne promoted her memoir in the U.S., she stayed at Gibson’s house. Madden (who later played band manager Reuben Kincaid on The Partridge Family) and his wife have connected with the families of Gibson, Owens, Johnson, Buzzi and Worley. And producer Schlatter has kept in touch with all of them. “They really came through for me,” he says now, surveying the room. “When I saw them here, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Rowan and Martin’s Cry-In? Verrrry interesting!
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Santa Monica