Sunday, August 13, 2023


The reaction my sister was probably not expecting, after sharing with me a link to the rarely seen TV show “Turn-On”, was my telling her I had wanted to see it for twenty years. After finding a lot to say about it here last time, my mind still wasn’t done with it, so here are the thoughts that continued bouncing around.

I have now watched more of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, the comedy variety show created by George Schlatter & Ed Friendly, the eventual producers of “Turn-On”. Running for five years from 1968, and the most popular show on American television for three of those, any further show from its team stood a chance of being made, if not of becoming a success. The double act of Dan Rowan & Dick Martin, more reminiscent of Martin & Lewis than Morecambe & Wise, provide the grounding for the wild sketches that appear around them, their black tuxedos marking them out from the rest of the show – the insistence of a guest host for “Turn-On” for the audience to identify with was lost by their not fulfilling the role of a host, and being mixed into the sketches with the rest of the cast. “Laugh-In” is also the show that gave the falsetto singer Tiny Tim his first TV appearance, which was done by having him sing while Dick Martin stood next to him, wondering what to think.

Many of the sketches on “Laugh-In” were made to facilitate the kind of one-liners and blackout gags that characterised “Turn-On”, like the show’s cast of future stars like Goldie Hawn, Jo Anne Worley and Lily Tomlin opening doors on the Joke Wall to say lines, and a succession of parties where everyone freezes dancing to share a line, the most memorable for me being, “I hear Raquel Welch is playing Myra Breckinridge... I hope she wins.” Each episode ran one hour (plus ad breaks), so while they were quick, they had the time to be legible enough for the audience to get the joke.

“Laugh-In” also had an array of catchphrases like “Sock It to Me”, “Here Come the Judge”, “Beautiful Downtown Burbank”, “Verrry Interesting...” and “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls!”, repeated each episode to produce a laugh by themselves, just as “The Fast Show” would do later. I now know the tape of then-President Richard Nixon’s famously halting reading of “Sock It to Me?” is because the catchphrase formed a small section of the show where the person saying it were then “socked” by a bucket of water, or by losing their clothes. 

Watching “Laugh-In” means remembering that the psychedelic, colourful sets, the rapid cross-cut editing employed in some sketches by literally splicing the videotape with razor blades, and the “right-on” humour touching upon race and gender, were entirely contemporary. This was the prevailing graphical look of the time, the sound of the pop music, and the words on people’s lips, and a perfect choice for BBC Two to show in 1968, as the only colour TV station in the UK at the time.

In terms of UK television, the nearest we appeared to have to “Turn-On” in overall shape, at least in what still exists to make the comparison, is “Zokko!”, a BBC One Saturday lunchtime compendium of songs, animation and stories for children that ran from 1969-70, initially hosted by a sentient pinball table, but later replaced by pop art imagery and lava lamp-like tubes, and all in black and white. 

Like the vast expanse of white in which “Turn-On” generated its sketches, British TV already had TV shows that used no discernible set, like the satirical “That Was the Week That Was” (1962-63), and the music show “Ready Steady Go” (1963-66), showing cameras and boom microphones in shot, but this was more down to thrift or lack of studio space, particularly later when “The Old Grey Whistle Test” began in 1971 by cramming bands into a space built only for studio discussion programmes of the sort later parodied endlessly by “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. However, when NBC, the eventual network for “Laugh-In”, launched an American version of “That Was the Week That Was”, they gave it a proper set.

I still think “Turn-On” could have been made to work, and I think enough parts of it were reflected in other TV shows for something like it to be tried again, but does anyone want to give me the resources to do it?

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