Dick Martin: Comedian and host of 'Laugh-In'

The comedian Dick Martin will be best remembered for the revolutionary comedy show he hosted and co-scripted with his partner Dan Rowan, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, which was a prime attraction on BBC2 on Sunday nights for three years (1968-71), and ran on NBC in the United States for nearly six.

An overnight sensation, it broke barriers with its mix of zany, off-beat satire, surrealism and slapstick in stark contrast to the pattern of songs and sketches followed by most light entertainment shows. It made stars of Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin – establishing Hawn as the ultimate dizzy blonde constantly fluffing her lines, and showcasing Tomlin's nasal switchboard operator, Ermintrude ("Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"). Martin and Rowan themselves bore some resemblance to the team of Burns and Allen, with debonair straight-man Rowan trying to cope with Martin's increasingly convoluted string of misunderstandings, while the mix of topical satire and surrealism owed a debt to the vaudeville team of Olsen and Johnson and such British influences as The Goon Show and That Was The Week That Was.

Laugh-In, as it became known, crystallised these influences into a fast-paced free-wheeling show that spawned an amazing number of catch-phrases and farcical "shtick" for its large cast. These included the British actress Judy Carne's "Sock it to me", which usually led to her being drenched by a bucket of water, Arte Johnson's German soldier peering out from behind a potted palm and murmuring "Verrry interesting", Martin's "You bet your bippy", the frequent reminder that the show was coming from "beautiful downtown Burbank", and the "joke wall" set full of windows through which cast members would appear to deliver one-liners.

Dick Martin, who was born in Michigan in 1922, grew up with a love of comedy, and wrote radio scripts in the Forties, notably as a staff writer on the popular show Duffy's Tavern. His early performing credits include a bit part in Father's Little Dividend (1951) with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor.

He met Dan Rowan late in 1951, shortly after seeing the double act of Martin and Lewis and deciding "it looked like a lot of fun". A few weeks later the double act of Rowan and Martin was born, and the team played night-clubs. Their career was given a boost after they performed as the opening act for Nat "King" Cole at a club at Lake Tahoe. Cole kept them on for a worldwide tour ending, after which they were given a four-week engagement in Las Vegas.

Though their names were now known enough for them to star in a low-budget western spoof, Once Upon a Horse (1958), they were still an "opening act", and from 1962 to 1964 Martin alone had a recurring television role in The Lucy Show. The team made frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Perry Como Show, and in 1966 they were hired by NBC when Dean Martin asked them to be hosts of The Dean Martin Summer Show. Their success prompted NBC to offer them their own show, the duo replying that they had "something a little different" in mind.

The first Laugh-In special was transmitted in September 1967 and, though the network was not happy with it, critical response was so positive that it was given a 13-week run. Slotted opposite two of the country's biggest television successes, Gunsmoke and The Lucy Show, it was not predicted to survive, but by the eighth show it was the number one programme in the US. As with The Morecambe and Wise Show in the UK, celebrities were happy to make cameo appearances, including the presidential candidate Richard Nixon, solemnly declaring, "Sock it to me". Among the show's writers were several British talents, including Barry Took, Digby Wolfe and Jeremy Lloyd. By the time it ended in 1973, 144 editions of Laugh-In had been transmitted.

Comedy teams often found the transition to the big screen difficult to bring off, and Rowan and Martin's second film together, The Maltese Bippy (1969), was a disastrous spoof of horror movies. After Dan Rowan retired to live in France, Martin acted in films and television, and had a notable career as a television director on such series as The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78).

Tom Vallance

Thomas Richard Martin, comedian and director: born Battle Creek, Michigan 30 January 1922; married 1957 Peggy Connelly (two sons; marriage dissolved), 1971, 1978 Dolly Read (first marriage dissolved 1975); died Santa Monica 24 May 2008.

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