Posted by Susan Doll on April 20, 2015
Twice in one day I was reminded of one of the strangest lines from one of my favorite television series. It’s not like “You bet your sweet bippy”—which was muttered every week for four seasons on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—is part of contemporary slang or TV-speak. After all, Laugh-In was cancelled in 1973. And, yet the word “bippy” crossed my path twice last week. While looking over the TCM schedule last Thursday, I noticed that The Maltese Bippy is airing tomorrow, Tuesday, April 21 at 6:15pm. Just a few minutes later, while watching General Hospital, one of the characters blurted, “You bet your sweet bippy.” You know you are a true TV-geek when a nonsense word like bippy makes you instantly nostalgic for a 40-year-old series.
The series’ full title was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In because it was hosted by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. The two met in 1952, though both had been kicking around show biz for several years. The son of carnies, who were killed when he was a boy, the hard-luck Rowan had been a junior writer at Paramount before WWII, while the college-educated Martin wrote for radio comedy programs. After teaming up, they honed their act on television and in clubs. In 1958, they starred in a lackluster comedy western called Once Upon a Horse, which I actually saw on television decades ago, but they did not come close to the big time until Dean Martin tagged them as regulars for his summer show in 1966. Like all comedy teams, the two developed personas that formed the basis for their shtick. Rowan was the pipe-smoking straight man to Martin’s loony skirt-chaser.
Laugh-In was produced by George Schlatter, a veteran of variety and comedy series who had caught Rowan and Martin’s act at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip. The genius of Laugh-In was its blend of comedy conventions from the past with contemporary subject matter and pacing. The hip content, including references to politics, drugs, and sex, plus certain set pieces, such as a parody of the news and an onslaught of one-liners scrolling across the bottom of the screen, served as an influence on Saturday Night Live. Debuting as a series in 1968, Laugh-In represented the past, present, and future of sketch comedy in one fell swoop.
The series breathed new life into the blackout sketch, which had been an integral part of vaudeville comedy. Blackouts were brief skits that featured one major joke. After the punch line was delivered, the curtain fell or the stage went dark so the audience knew there was no extended sketch. Laugh-In’s skits and shtick were videotaped instead of being shot in front of live audiences like other variety shows. This made it easier to use blackout-style humor. Sometimes blackouts were followed by brief shots of cast members Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, and Teresa Graves dancing in bikinis with slogans painted on their bodies. Other bits that were a throwback to vaudeville included spoofs of burlesque or fan dances by the female cast members. Additional sketches were patterned after Ernie Kovacs’s absurdist “silent” comedy, which was physical humor with no dialogue on punch lines: A woman getting out of bathtub would be followed by six other people, or a man trying to open a window would find the door or wall opening instead.
The show also featured regular routines that served as frameworks for one-liners or to showcase a cast member’s comic character. Rowan and Martin presented the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate to politicians, miscreants, or other low-lifes who made the news that week. Cast members burst out of shuttered windows to deliver knock-knock jokes, improv bits, and ad libs as the closing credits scrolled by. And, “Laugh-In Looks at the News,” a forerunner to the newscast on Saturday Night Live, parodied the media and major stories of the day. The show not only featured a talented cast who sang, danced, and told jokes with impeccable timing but also introduced Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, and Flip Wilson to the world. Though not remembered in retrospect, Arte Johnson and Henry Gibson were well-respected cast members, while Ruth Buzzi and JoAnn Worley were among the regular comediennes. Laugh-In also instigated a number of well-known, pop-culture catch phrases, including the infamous “Sock it to me,” which was once uttered on the show by Richard Nixon. Legend has it that “You bet your sweet bippy” was heard so often around the United Nations that a foreign emissary asked an American delegate, “What’s a bippy?”
Laugh-In was the number-one show from 1968 to 1970, prompting MGM to sign Rowan and Martin for their second film. The title The Maltese Bippy was obviously designed to take advantage of Laugh-In’s most famous catch phrase, though the movie had little in common with the series—except for reveling in ridiculous puns. Billed as “an action-adventure-romantic-horror-melodramatic comedy,” The Maltese Bippy spoofs the clichés and tropes of major Hollywood genres. Rowan stars as Sam Smith, a producer of nudie flicks that feature his partner Ernest Grey, played by Martin. The two are in the midst of shooting Lunar Lust, when nervous Ernest begins to suffer from an uncontrollable urge to howl like a dog—which may be an indicator that he is a werewolf. The pair moves into Ernest’s creepy house on Long Island already inhabited by a chatty housekeeper, a pretty college co-ed, and a Swedish violinist. And yet, Ernest’s roommates seem normal compared to the folks next door, who include a sinister man named Ravenswood, his over-sexed sister Carlotta, and their 200-pound housekeeper, Helga. The neighbors turn out to be vampires, who want Ernest to join them, but Sam insists the foursome should become a vaudeville act. And, that’s the simplified version of the storyline. No kidding.
Too bad the cast members of Laugh-In were not hired, but Rowan and Martin made do with ‘60s stalwarts Julie Newmar as Carlotta, Fritz Weaver as Ravenswood, Carol Lynley as the coed, and Robert Reed (from The Brady Bunch) as the token handsome leading man. Of course the reviews were horrific. Vincent Canby of The New York Times never liked anything, so why he bothered to review The Maltese Bippy is a mystery. Canby the curmudgeon began by dissing Laugh-In, calling it “reverent propaganda.” I don’t even know what that means. He claimed that he couldn’t tell Rowan and Martin apart because they were interchangeable and concluded by slamming Martin and Lewis for good measure. Well, anyone expecting The Maltese Bippy to be a decent, conventional comedy is either lying or crazy. After all, one of the posters for the film features Rowan saying, “Dick, It sure was fun making a flick with you,” to which Martin responds, “Well, ring my chimes. I thought we were posing for a Playgirl spread.” No kidding.
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