From Laugh-In to 60 Minutes, Five Shows That Transformed Television In 1968

The original cast of Laugh-In used comedy to diffuse our nation's social tensions in 1968.
The original cast of Laugh-In used comedy to diffuse our nation's social tensions in 1968.
National Broadcasting Company

For the U.S., 1968 was a sociopolitical crossroads at which a war, political schisms, activism, youth culture, style, the arts and the widening gender gap all converged. The exhibit 1968: The Year That Rocked History, which officially opens to the public on Saturday, February 7, at the History Colorado Center brings all of those divergent directions together; in advance of the show's debut, we're rolling out a suite of lists to prep you for the 1968 experience.

By 1968, every American household had one, if not multiple, televisions acting as a window to the world. The horrors of the Vietnam War, the fury of civil rights and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were brought into our homes via an invisible signal that also pointed to the science of outer-space exploration and maybe, just maybe, the hope of peace some day in a world seemingly gone mad. Star Trek had already premiered in 1966, showing a future full of possibilities and racial harmony, while the earthbound Bewitched, Get Smart and Peyton Place seemed to be ignoring the reality of the world outside the boob tube. But in '68, a few shows joining the lineup showed that sometimes the best way to be entertained is to face reality head on.

See also: Seven Films That Opened Our Eyes in 1968

5) Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In Debuted January 22, 1968

One of the most powerful shows to affect the popular culture was

Laugh-In

, which was unlike anything that had been on TV before. The brainchild of comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, it featured a large cast of previously unknown comics of varied race, gender and appearance (including Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson) and used its platform to poke fun at the melting pot of politics, entertainment, fears and hopes, filtering them through the universal colander of comedy. The title itself was a play on the then-currrent phrases "love-in" and "sit-in," so the show was practically begging folks to take a moment out from fighting and just laugh -- which America was certainly ready to do, especially when the comedic sketches released some tension on the hot topics of race, Vietnam and the battle of the sexes. At the height of the show's fame, celebrities from Johnny Carson to President Richard Nixon wanted to appear and play along with the cast of characters, uttering catchphrases that were repeated in homes and workplaces the next day.

Laugh-In

ran until 1973, and the legacy of laughs it started was soon followed by a little show called

Saturday Night Live

, which debuted in 1975.

4) One Life to Live Debuted July 15, 1968

In 1956, CBS debuted the fifteen-minute daytime serial

As The World Turns

, the story of a wealthy family dealing with daily life as the average American

didn't

know it, but wanted to. The show's success created spinoffs

Guiding Light

and

Another World

, which captivated a generation of stay-at-home mothers doing housework and earned the shows the label "soap operas," as the stories took viewers far away from their real worlds into fictional storyscapes. Impressed with the success of CBS's lineup, ABC courted one of its writers, Agnes Nixon, to craft a similar show for its network. Nixon agreed, but under one condition: She was tired of writing a world revolving around whitewashed Richie Riches and wanted to explore a truer, diverse sampling of America that dealt with social and economic woes. So the show focused on four families living in Llanview, Pennsylvania: the wealthy Lord clan, the working-class Polish-American Woleks, the lower class Irish Catholic Rileys and the African-American Grays. The experiment worked, and

One Life

's reflection of America's families soon grew to an hour and spun off both

All My Children

and

General Hospital

. The original lasted until 2013.

Keep reading for more of the shows that rocked the boob tube in 1968  

3) Hawaii 5-O Debuted September 20, 1968

The mysterious state of Hawaii had only been a part of America for nine years before it was chosen as the exotic locale for a cop procedural that would keep viewers tuning in every week for twelve years (making it the longest-running cop show until that record was bested by

Law & Order

in 2003).

Hawaii 5-O

featured Jack Lord as Captain Steve McGarrett, whose special team of detectives, including native Kam Fong as Chin Ho, solved crimes and murders amid gorgeous, shot-on-location beaches and tourist attractions. Aside from creating a weekly paradise of escape for viewers,

5-O

was notable for hiring real Hawaiian talent to fill its roles; Fong himself was an eighteen-year veteran of the Honolulu Police force. While the continental U.S. was still arguing over black and white, this hit show was working with integration of a different sort on a larger scale.

2) The Mod Squad Debuted September 24, 1968

One of the biggest audiences caught in the counterculture was the "youth generation," and future king of television Aaron Spelling knew exactly how to keep young eyes glued to the tube when they weren't out protesting, and how to give adults a spin on what they were fearing in the children of the '60s.

The Mod Squad

was a young detective team brought together by their stereotypes: Pete (Michael Cole) was the "shaggy, long-haired" trust fund kid rebelling against his parents, Linc (Clarence Williams III) was the angry black man freshly arrested in the Watts riots, and Julie (Peggy Lipton) was the homeless runaway escaping a life of prostitution. They were guaranteed a fresh start from their troubled pasts by a stalwart captain who knew their youth could help them unravel cases un-hip adults couldn't crack. The show was a hit and was one of the first -- after

Star Trek

and

I Spy

-- to feature a significant black character. In fact, after

Trek

showed the first interracial kiss on national television,

Mod Squad

followed suit -- and, perhaps as a sign of the times, nary a feather was ruffled.

1) 60 Minutes Debuted September 24, 1968

The nightly news was an American viewer's way of catching up with the events of the day, and in 1968 those live broadcasts were filled with breaking news of the war in Vietnam and racial tensions. But the debut of

60 Minutes

changed the face of television reporting forever.

60 Minutes

skipped the standard news format and incorporated a "magazine" style, focusing its lens on a team of reporters who investigated stories outside of the daily realm, filming and editing interviews outside of the studio, using hidden cameras in investigative probes and ushering in a new wave of "gotcha" journalism. Hosted by Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace, and debuting not with a jingle or theme but a close-up and audio of a loud, ticking stopwatch, the first episode of the show featured stories on our electorial process, a look at the political HQs of presidential candidates Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, an interview with the attorney general about police brutality and a short film by Saul Bass. It concluded with a discussion by hosts Reasoner and Wallace about perception and reality -- with Wallace pointedly reminding viewers that the show's aim was to always "reflect reality."

60 Minutes

urged everyone to always look deeper for the truth.

The 1968 Exhibit opens Saturday, February 7 and runs through May 10 at the History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway. Tickets run from $8 to $12; get them and more info at historycoloradocenter.org.

Dear Constant Reader, you can learn more about Keith Garcia on Twitter:@ConstantWatcher


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