Jonathan Storm: Special will let us laugh again at 'Laugh-In'

Lily Tomlin cracks up producer George Schlatter at the TV critics' meeting. She reprised her routine about the eraser-eating rubber addict. "The Best of Laugh-In" will air in March.
Lily Tomlin cracks up producer George Schlatter at the TV critics' meeting. She reprised her routine about the eraser-eating rubber addict. "The Best of Laugh-In" will air in March.
Posted: January 11, 2011

Inquirer television critic Jonathan Storm is reporting this week from the television critics' press tour in Pasadena, Calif. These items are taken from his blog, "Eye of the Storm," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/storm.

The Laugh-In loonies are still laughing.

Ruth Buzzi, Jo Anne Worley, Lily Tomlin, announcer Gary Owens, and executive producer George Schlatter - most looking surprisingly youthful though all over 70 - talked down memory lane for ages, like Oprah Winfrey before them, as they met with television critics gathered in California for their annual winter meeting.

Unlike Oprah, the Laugh-In alums were funny, and, eventually, one of the critics interrupted their patter to start asking questions.

The cast came to flog their PBS special, The Best of Laugh-In, which will air in March.

Schlatter talked about how the cast joined the show. Owen auditioned in a men's room. Worley got noticed initially over the phone. Tomlin did her characters, including phone operator Ernestine, for three hours, and she performed the rubber addict for the critics:

"I think it all started one day. I sat down to balance my checkbook. I must have blacked out because, when I came to, I realized I'd eaten the eraser off my pencil. It wasn't any time at all I was up to 20 pencils a day. . . . I started to take all my household money and spend it on art gum."

It's hard to imagine, but back in the '60s, when there were only three TV networks, 60 million people - more than twice as many as now watch the Oscars - would tune in to Laugh-In every week. It always seemed risque. Girls, including Goldie Hawn, did dance around in their bikinis, and everybody up to Richard Nixon would chant, "Sock it to me," but, Schlatter said, the emphasis was on silliness, not sex.

"We did have our problems. Basically, we would tell the band, when something was really kind of edgy, raunchy, not to laugh," he said.

"Jeopardy!" champs vs. the computer. Oh, Jeopardy! fans, there's joy in your future.

America's favorite brain game will host a tournament Feb. 14-16 featuring Jeopardy! legends Ken Jennings, who has won the most consecutive games, and Brad Rutter, the biggest money-winner in the show's history.

Contestant No. 3 will be Watson, 10 refrigerators' worth of computer equipment that its backers say has a good chance of winning.

And it's that good chance, rather than the outcome, that computer scientists, speaking to television critics on Sunday about PBS's Nova, said is most significant in the evolution of "thinking" machines. The subtlety of Jeopardy! categories and the wordplay involved present an extremely difficult challenge for the off-and-on nature of computer processes. "The biggest achievement is that it already can compete against the best players," said David Ferrucci, lead scientist on the IBM project, which is named after the company's founder, Thomas J. Watson.

'Twasn't always so. In a test tourney, Watson hit the bull's-eye on a question about clothing a young girl might wear on an operatic ship. The answer, pinafore, is also found in the title of the Gilbert & Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore. And the computer was also successful with a before-and-after Jeopardy! question about a candy bar and a Supreme Court justice, Baby Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But earlier in its career, when asked, "What does a grasshopper eat?" it responded, "Kosher."

A true Jeopardy! fan - me - pointed out that getting the right answer isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of winning. Timing the button-push is crucial, and wouldn't Watson have an unfair advantage because it didn't have to buzz in? Nope. If you can build a machine that thinks, it's child's play to put together a contraption that replicates a button-pushing hand, Ferrucci said.

A computer may eventually become the best contestant, but one thing's certain: It will never replace Alex Trebek. I leave it to you decide if that's good or bad.

The Nova show about the computer airs Feb. 9, which, you may notice, is a Wednesday. After a zillion Tuesdays, PBS's science show is moving.


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

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