Late 'Laugh-In' brothers Arte and Coslough Johnson share comedy history with Illinois

Gisela and Arte Johnson

The late comedy legend brothers Arte Johnson (BS ’49, radio journalism) and Coslough Johnson (BS ’52, radio journalism) made sure to invest in the future of media by preserving part of its past. 

Both have donated artifacts to the University Library from their most famous collaboration, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which aired 1968-73 on NBC, in which Arte was an actor and Coslough was a writer. They won Emmy Awards and multiple nominations for their roles on the pioneering comedy sketch show that addressed social and political issues, mixed with one-liners, non-sequitur bits, and jump-cuts at breakneck speed, plus a constant stream of Hollywood cameos. 

Dean Martin, Arte Johnson, Diane Shatz
Arte Johnson dressed as his German soldier Laugh-In
character, with Dean Martin and Diane Shatz on
The Dean Martin Show. (Wikimedia Commons.)

The Johnson family’s latest gift comes from Arte’s widow, Gisela (pictured above); the couple were married for 51 years until his death in 2019. Earlier this year, Gisela provided the University Library with a wealth of archival materials from Laugh-In and other TV episodes and movies that featured Arte, plus scrapbooks, photographs, and letters. (Learn more about their latest contributions.)

Laugh-In brought in the biggest guest stars of the day: Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, John Wayne, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Regular cast members included Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. It paved the way for Saturday Night Live, which debuted two years after Laugh-In ended. It was still cemented in TV history three decades after it ended, making TV Guide’s list of 50 greatest shows of all time in 2002.

Cos Johnson, Dan Rowan, Chris Bearde
Coslough Johnson, Dan Rowan, and Cos's writing
partner Chris Bearde. (Photo courtesy of Mary Jane
Ferguson Johnson.)

Coslough previously donated 62 Laugh-In scripts to the University Library. The Library’s 1994 Friendscript newsletter noted its cultural significance: “Whether it’s the satirization of the Vietnam War, the fun poked at politicians and government policies, or the songs sung by the entertainers (all the lyrics are in the scripts), each script gives an interesting snapshot of the issues and tastes of the nation at a particularly unsettled period of our history.” 

By email, Gisela wrote that Arte “loved his University and his years there, and all the friends he made and stayed friends with, all through his time of being famous—it didn’t matter to him, he always was just ARTE.”

During the ’70s, Arte and Gisela visited campus to cheer on the Illini with Arte’s Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity brother and classmate Larry Stewart (BS ’47, journalism). Stewart was a renowned local sports broadcaster, known as the “Voice of the Illini,” calling games for football and basketball, the creator/host of the call-in talk show Penny for Your Thoughts, and general manager of radio station WDWS.

Gisela and Arte Johnson with Larry Stewart
Larry Stewart (BS ’47, journalism), center, greets
Gisela and Arte Johnson at Arte’s Class of 1949
reunion in 1974. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Stewart.)

Stewart’s daughter, Debbie, remembers Arte keeping in touch with her dad, calling him and attending Illinois games together. 

“Arte and my dad were great friends till the end of my dad’s life,” Stewart said. “They spoke on the phone frequently and Arte was always sending him postcards. They really enjoyed their friendship.”     

Arte, who grew up in Chicago, had considered himself a bibliophile and said, “the [University] Library was for me at once a place to escape to, a place of enlightenment, a place of encouragement,” in a 1979-80 Friendscript. Arte was also quoted for his love of libraries, saying in a 1987 issue: “The legacy of the printed word is still one of the greatest gifts one generation can pass on to another.” 

After Arte died, a New York Times obituary described him as “a one-man ensemble on Laugh-In, playing a range of characters with accents, but he was probably best known for the helmeted German soldier who would peer through bushes before slowly uttering, ‘Very interesting.’” He had also starred in episodes of many classic TV shows such as Lost in Space, Bewitched, and Murder, She Wrote, voiced characters in many cartoons such as Animaniacs, The Smurfs, and DuckTales, and narrated dozens of audiobooks including for humor columnist and author Dave Barry.

At the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, historians of popular culture can explore scripts from Laugh-In’s first four seasons, as well as scripts Coslough donated from other 1970s TV variety series that he wrote for, such as the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. 

Laugh-In is currently available to watch on streaming platforms including Freevee, Roku, Tubi, and Amazon Prime.

Photo at top of Gisela and Arte Johnson by Michael P. Maron Photography.

—Holly Rushakoff