The 1969 comedy The Maltese Bippy has been released on DVD by the Warner Archive. What is a bippy? If you're of a certain age and grew up in the 1960s, you need not ask. A bippy was an undefined thing that nevertheless, it was insinuated, had a rather naughty or distasteful element to it. The phrase was coined by comedians Dan Rowan and Dick Martin on their hit TV series Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The show is rarely discussed today but there is no underestimating its impact on American popular culture when it premiered in January of 1968, replacing The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which had been canceled after three and a half seasons. The premise of the show capitalized on the youth movement and sexual revolution that characterized the era. There was no structure to the show, which largely consisted of rapid fire one-liners and short comedy sketches that often pushed the limits of network censorship. Rowan and Martin had been a popular comedy team that had nonetheless not reached the top rungs of their profession. That would change with the premiere of the show. Their shtick was not unlike those of other comedy duos: Dan Rowan was the sophisticated straight man and Dick Martin was the naive, goofy partner who got most of the laughs. The two men were improbable hosts for what became TV's hippest "must see" comedy show. Not only were they middle-aged, but they adhered to the then popular tradition of hosting their show while clad in tuxedos. Nevertheless, Rowan and Martin introduced envelope-pushing humor that became a sensation. The Smother Brothers had tried the same thing on CBS and got canceled for their efforts largely because they were so sarcastic about LBS's Vietnam War policies. But Rowan and Martin skewered all of the politicians and even included some of them on the show as part of its tradition of showcasing unlikely people spouting one-liners. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels may have had a hit record titled "Sock It To Me, Baby", but it was Laugh-in that immortalized the phrase. In fact, it played a role in the 1968 presidential election. Richard Nixon, back from the political graveyard, was the Republican nominee for president, squaring off against the Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The Democratic convention in Chicago had been a disaster, marred by riots and police brutality. Nixon had based his campaign on a calm, law-and-order message that resonated with middle class, white voters. However, he was notoriously lacking in humor or personalty. When his advisers convinced him to make a five second cameo on Laugh-In in which he phrased "Sock it to me" as a question, voters saw a side of Nixon they didn't know existed. Whether he ever knew the relevance of the show or not, his poll numbers started to rise and he eeked out a narrow victory over the surging Humphrey in the November elections. Other phrases popularized on the show included "Here comes da judge!", "Veerrry interesting" and "You bet your sweet bippy", which was routinely used as a retort to almost any question posed to Dick Martin. The show's impact over its five year run included making household names of then unknown actresses Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. Seemingly all the major stars wanted to film cameos for the show. These included such eclectic talents as Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman and John Wayne. The show also made a short-term superstar of eccentric crooner Tiny Tim.
In 1969, MGM signed Rowan and Martin to a feature film, The Maltese Bippy. This was not their first time on the big screen. In 1958 they appeared in a forgettable comedy, Once Upon a Horse. The Bippy movie did not replicate their success on television and vanished rather quickly, though it has developed a cult following over the decades. The Maltese Bippy begins amusingly enough with footage from a sword and sandal movie that then morphs into Rowan and Martin doing their standard stand-up routine! You have to give the writers credit for at least thinking outside the box. The film proper begins with partners Sam Smith (Rowan) and Ernest Gray (Martin) trying to eek out a living by convincing a busty, 18 year old airhead to appear in a sexlpoitation film with Ernest as the leading man. The amusing sequence finds them filming this "epic" in the confines of a small office with incredibly shoddy pull down paintings serving as scenery. The office is raided and they are evicted for non-payment of rent. Back at Ernest's Victorian era house, his only remaining financial asset, the pair snipe at each other as they try to come up with some other method of making a living. From this point, the story goes into very bizarre directions. It would be pointless to try to connect all the disparate plot angles. Suffice it to say that over the course of the remaining running time, we are introduced to a series of eccentric supporting characters. These include Robin (Carol Lynley), a young college girl who is boarding at the house. Ernest has the hots for her but her innocent nature may be a ruse and she appears to have an ulterior motive for her presence in the house. This could be rumors that the place holds an ancient treasure that is the motivation for less scrupulous characters to pay visits to Sam and Ernest. These include Mischa Ravenswood (Fritz Weaver), a menacing Romanian nobleman who is always in the company of his mentally deranged sister Carlotta (Julie Newmar). They seem to be after the treasure that the household is said to contain. Added to the mix is another wacky boarder, Axel (Leon Askin of Hogan's Heroes). Then there is Ernest's long-suffering housekeeper Molly (Mildred Natwick) who may not be what she seems. An unrelated subplot has the victim of a vicious murder discovered near Ernest's house. It appears the dead man may have been killed by an unknown animal and this results in extended sequences and gags in which Ernest begins to believe that he is actually a werewolf!
The film lumbers along under the direction of veteran Norman Panama but every now and then a genuinely funny gag comes along that makes you laugh in spite of yourself. The film's greatest asset is the spirited performances and the film provides a treasure trove of goofy characters for well-established actors to have fun with. (It's great to see Fritz Weaver in a rare comedy role.) Ironically, the movie mostly comes alive in the final act in which virtually the entire cast kills themselves off. It's a bizarre but funny premise and is well-executed. Despite its flaws, The Maltese Bippy is an enjoyable romp.
The failure of The Maltese Bippy at the boxoffice ensured that Rowan and Martin never appeared on the big screen again. Dick Martin, who had already established himself as a successful supporting actor and comedy director, had a thriving career until his death in 2008. Dan Rowan retired in the early 1980s partly due to health problems. He passed away in 1987 at age 65. Is it safe to say that Rowan and Martin's legacy as major influences on American comedy in the 1960s is secure? You bet your sweet bippy.