I remember Judy Carne

Remember her

The older you get, the more you find that people who were once figures in your life are passing away. Sometimes it feels like they’re being deliberately stacked up, in order, to diminish or deprive your life of the colourful icons that lit up various areas of your past.
A couple of days ago, in some confusion about whether or not the news was a hoax, it was confirmed that the English actress and comedienne Judy Carne had died at the age of 74. She probably means little or nothing to you unless you are of a similar age to me. She never enjoyed any substantial success in England, though there was a time, at the end of the Sixties and into the very early Seventies, when she was a very big hit in America, as part of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
Laugh-In was an oddity of a programme, one of American TV’s earliest attempts to, in some way, absorb, reflect and, in a sense, defuse the counter-culture of the late Sixties. It’s main contemporary was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, though that was overtly satirical, and anti-Establishment, and paid for its insistence on not knuckling under.
Laugh-In was different. It was absurd, wacky, hilarious, madcap, a breath of fresh air at the time but, in retrospect, an attempt to cash in on the culture without ever allowing it to stray into the political field that Dick and Tommy Smothers were pursuing.
Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were a night club comedy stand-up double act, Rowan the straight man, Martin the clown (their perennial sign off was: Rowan: “Say goodnight, Dick”, Martin: “Goodnight Dick”.) They were the ringmasters, the spine that held the show together with the troupe of eccentrics they’d gathered around them performed their routines and schticks. At the time, they were the unfunny part of the programme, the bit where you caught your breath and recovered your balance before going off into the next lunatic segment.
Some performers had routines, played out in weekly variations. Alan Sues was a stoned sports announcer in love with the sound of his tinkling bell, Arte Johnson was a German soldier, popping up after sketches to pronounce what had just happened to be “Verrrry interestink – but schtupid!”. Ruth Buzzi played a repressed spinster continually being propositioned by a dirty old man (Johnson) in little skits that involved three lines from Johnson punctuated by smacks around the head from Buzzi’s handbag. Henry Gibson was the Poet, an overly sensitive young man.
Judy Carne was part of Laugh-In, a very prominent part for the first two seasons of the show. A petite, short-haired English actress and comedienne who had been appearing on television and in films since she was a teenager, Carne was the ‘Sock-it-to-me’ girl, forever being tricked into repeating some version of her catch-phrase, after which she would be soaked.
Carne and her catch-phrase were the symbol for the programme (at one point, President Nixon appeared on film, querying, ‘Sock it to me?’ He was not soaked.). A gamine girl, pixieish of face and figure, always quick to burst into laughter, and like the other younger female members of the troupe, regularly filmed in a skimpy bikini, gyrating go-go-girl style with painted symbols and phrases on face, arms, legs, belly etc.
Carne stood out for her Englishness and her chirpiness, though not for her figure, as she was a small girl all over (as was fellow comedienne, Goldie Hawn). She was well aware of this: I remember one tactless newspaper interview quoting her on this, whilst she was ‘scrunching up her pitifully wee bosom’.
I loved Laugh-In from the first time I saw it. It was being shown on BBC2 at 9.00pm on Wednesdays in 1969, when 9.00pm was still my strictly enforced bedtime. But my parents had watched it, and told me that they thought I would like the programme, and offered me a deal: as long as I was washed and dressed for bed by 9.00pm, I could sit up and watch Laugh-In and shoot straight off when it finished at 9.45pm.
I was not yet at the age where parental recommendations were to be looked upon with extreme suspicion, and exactly at the age when suggestions that treated me as more of an adult were very welcome. So I watched with open mind and open ears and nearly laughed myself sick many times over. They had read me very right indeed.
In truth, I didn’t find Carne herself especially funny nor, given that my hormones had not quite started to tick, especially attractive. Other performers made me howl and gasp with laughter. But in a way, especially as the show was presented in England, she was our symbol. She was one of us making it as one of them, and I don’t think I’d ever seen an English performer on an American programme before, and certainly not with her own accent.
Carne left Laugh-In in 1971, having grown bored of the show. Producer George Schlatter blamed her for breaking up the “family”, though she continued to make occasional appearances. She never achieved any comparable fame either in America or in the UK, and struggled with failed marriages, drugs and her bisexuality.
My only other memory of her was in a review of her appearance in a television interview. She had been in a serious car accident, so serious that, in order to hold her head and neck in place, it had been encased in a steel cage, with a bolt through into her skull. Despite this, she was all grins and smiles, albeit pained, still looking forward, still assuming she would once again be a star. I remember the reviewer commenting on the fates in store for those who refuse to look after herself.
She returned to her native Northamptonshire in the Eighties and lived there quietly until her death, aged 74. I can’t imagine her being 74. I can’t imagine ever ever being anything other than the short-skirted pixie of 1969 to 1971.
Whenever Laugh-In has been repeated in latter years, I’ve watched it in bemusement as to what there was about it that I ever found funny. It was very much a programme whose humour was tied to its times, and that has not carried on into later generations in the way that such things as The Goon Show or Monty Python have done so effortlessly. In repeats, it’s Dan Rowan and Dick Martin who are now the funny parts of the programme.
Judy Carne (whose real name was Joyce Anne Botterill) is far from being the first member of the Laugh-In cast to leave us, nor ultimately was she one of the major parts of the same, she was a wee, pretty, funny, brittle girl who captured the zeitgeist of a long ago time, but whose life ended up lived in obscurity. But she was a gleam and a glitter and deserved better than she got, and that’s one more bright memory slipping out of sight.

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