Dick Martin broke rules of TV comedy

LOS ANGELES — Dick Martin, the off-the-wall half of the comedy team whose “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” took television by storm in the 1960s, making stars of Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin and creating such national catch-phrases as “Sock it to me!” has died. He was 86.

Martin, who went on to become one of television’s busiest directors after splitting with Dan Rowan in the late 1970s, died Saturday night of respiratory complications at a hospital in Santa Monica, family spokesman Barry Greenberg said.

Martin had lost the use of one of his lungs as a teenager, and needed supplemental oxygen for most of the day in his later years.

He was surrounded by family and friends when he died just after 6 p.m., Greenberg said.

“Laugh-in,” which debuted in January 1968, was unlike any comedy-variety show before it. Rather than relying on a series of tightly scripted song-and-dance segments, it offered a steady, almost stream-of-consciousness run of non-sequitur jokes, political satire and madhouse antics from a cast of talented young actors and comedians that also included Ruth Buzzi, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Jo Anne Worley and announcer Gary Owens.

Presiding over it all were Rowan and Martin, the veteran nightclub comics whose standup banter put their own distinct spin on the show.

“Laugh-In” astounded audiences and critics alike. For two years the show topped the Nielsen ratings, and its catchphrases— “Sock it to me,” “You bet your sweet bippy” and “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall’s” — were recited across the country.

Rowan and Martin landed the show just as their comedy partnership was approaching its zenith and the nation’s counterculture was expanding into the mainstream.

The two were both struggling actors when they met in 1952. Although their early gigs in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley were often performed gratis, they donned tuxedos for them and put on an air of success.

“We were raw,” Martin recalled years later, “but we looked good together and we were funny.”

They gradually worked up to the top night spots in New York, Miami and Las Vegas and began to appear regularly on television.

In 1966, they provided the summer replacement for “The Dean Martin Show.” Within two years, they were headlining their own show.

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