Starring Robert Klein, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, MacIntrye Dixon, Judy Graubart, Marty Barris. Robert Merrill, Jerry Lacy
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In changed TV comedy, creating a frenetic style filled with oddball (and frankly dumb) jokes. In a year, this was the way to go.* And, at the time, instead of reruns for variety shows, the networks ran summer replacement series. Comedy Tonight was one of the best.
The show was hosted by Robert Klein and was a series of skits** using a cast of very talented comic actors. The show’s theme, of course, was Stephen Sondheim’s song of the same name and the show would start with the case singing it, then breaking off in the middle for short skits or blackout gags before returning to it.
The show attempted to be topical. Not in politics, but in various things in society that were open to satire: soap operas, commercials, talk shows, and the like. A subject was chosen, and there would be a series of gags – some quick, some a little more developed – on the theme.
Not much is available about the show, but a couple of things remain vivid to me, even now.
- For a segment on advertising: This was the time when cigarette commercials were going off the air, and Winston was going out with a campaign “What do you want? Good grammar or good taste?”*** Klein replied, “With Madison Avenue, you’re lucky to get either.”
- For a segment on talk shows: Big star (obviously modeled on Judy Garland) is on a talk show. The host asks her to sing “The Trolley Song.” She declines, saying she’s not ready, she hasn’t rehearsed it, she hadn’t expected it, etc. The host finally gets her to give in so she goes to the stage, puts on a tailcoat and hat, and the band starts playing the music, which she sings while doing an elaborate dance routine.
Not much of the show remains; as you can see the IMDB entry is sparse. There were only about a half dozen shows, all in the summer when the audience is low. But Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle became major names in movies and TV, and Robert Klein is considered one of the deans of standup comedy. Several of the lesser-known names still had long careers, both on stage and in TV.
Still, it was a fine show that seems to have been completely lost. Too bad.
*Even when it was a mistake. Dean Martin’s Comedy World, a summer replacement series of 1974, had the wonderful idea of showing comedians around the world. They tried to ape Laugh-In with short bits of a joke or two. The problem is that a comedian on stage had a routine that built up in the telling and taking two or three jokes out of context didn’t work at all. The show was the US debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with a couple of very short bits. Oddly, one of the sketches shown used the phrase “naughty bits.” The censors bleeped out the words (maybe the first example of what Jimmy Fallon uses as his “Unnecesary Censorship” videos). Why the show just didn’t pick another Monty Python sketch is inexplicable.
**Similar in some ways to Monty Python, though shorter and less silly.
***For the younger folk, Winston’s slogan for years was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” When it was first used “like” was considered grammatically incorrect (it was supposed to be “as”), but the usage is now unobjectionable. However, that didn’t keep people from the time from kvetching about how bad the error was.