PASADENA, Calif. -- If it's a pledge month, you can bet PBS will step into the Wayback Machine.
Granted, the 10th iteration of a doo-wop special arguably lives up to the mission of PBS, but the system could do worse -- and has: see 2003's "How to Live Forever with Gary Null" -- than to revisit touchstones of pop culture with specials such as "The Best of Laugh-In" (7 p.m. March 22 on KUED Channel 7).
The program is basically a clip show with a few contextualizing current-day segments used to stitch it together. Producer George Schlatter hosts those segments, which also feature clips of the stars attending some sort of recent red-carpet event celebrating the series. That seems like a missed opportunity to film a panel discussion that answers, "Where are they now?"
Regardless, this trip down memory lane is more entertaining than, say, a Suze Orman financial special (another pledge staple) as it looks back at "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and its place in American culture from 1968 to 1973.
At a January PBS press conference, Schlatter and cast members reminisced about the series that popularized the phrases "sock it to me," "you bet your sweet bippy" and "look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls."
It's perhaps a little ironic that a show that was considered hip and edgy in its heyday would wind up as a nostalgia show on PBS, but it also makes a great deal of sense. The PBS audience tends to be older, the kind of people who grew up watching "Laugh-In."
"I think it's perfect for PBS. It's kind of come of age," Schlatter said. "There's nothing in it that's dirty. It's just bawdy, and the pace, the energy and the colors and Goldie (Hawn) running around in a bikini, it felt more progressive than it was. It was really a very innocent show."
"Are they buying it?" he asked cast members sitting beside him.
Actress/comedian Lily Tomlin became famous, thanks to her Ernestine phone-operator character on "Laugh-In." Schlatter said he told Tomlin the character would be a hit before her first performance and he offered her one suggestion: Dial the phone with a middle finger, something the NBC censors missed.
"They knew we were doing something mischievous, but they couldn't put their (finger on it)," Tomlin said.
Schlatter described one trick used to fool the censors. If there was an edgy or raunchy joke, he told band members not to laugh at it but then to laugh at something else in the sketch that wasn't as randy. Schlatter said the censor would then be drawn to the less-bawdy joke that got the laugh.
One could wonder if "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which was notoriously censored during the same period, took a bullet for "Laugh-In," but Schlatter doesn't think so.
"The Smothers had an agenda. We gave it to everybody. We were on both sides," he said. "I mean, you put Richard Nixon on, you can't say that we're too far to the left."
During his presidential campaign, Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In" to deliver the "sock it to me" line, but did so with an inflection that made it sound like a question. Schlatter said he tried to get Nixon's rival, Hubert Humphrey, to appear on the show, too, but the candidate's advisers counseled against an appearance, according to the show's announcer, Gary Owens. "And he said that cost him the election," Schlatter said.
In addition to its guest stars and bawdy humor, the series pioneered shorter sketches and influenced series that would follow, including "Sesame Street" and "Saturday Night Live." ("SNL" creator Lorne Michaels was a "Laugh-In" writer.)
"I believe maybe we shortened the attention span," Schlatter said. "I think we absorbed more information more quickly. What bothers me about cable is that with all that freedom, they got dirty -- they didn't get funny. You walk in and say the F-word, and you can't follow that with anything."
Owens put the success of "Laugh-In" in perspective. He said that, in 1968, 60 million viewers tuned in to the show each week.
"There's no show today anywhere near that in the ratings and probably never will be," Owens said. And he's right. These days "American Idol" is television's biggest hit series with 23 million viewers, a sign of how fragmented the audience has become with hundreds of cable-channel choices.
Tomlin said the appeal of "Laugh-In" was simple: Laughter is contagious.
"People get turned on when they're watching a bunch of other people having fun," she said. "If you have a bunch of people acting crazy on television every Monday night and really having fun, it just translates, and it touches the audience."