Kultur // 2000 // 70 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 3rd, 2004
Make 'em laugh!
When one looks back at the comedy of the past, it seems like light years away from the shock-filled sensationalism of today's humor. In the "good old days" of "good clean comedians," the more ribald and risqué material was completely verboten in the nightclubs and theaters of America. So the rude and crude had to be reserved for one place, and one place only: the Friars Club.
Begun as an informal meeting among the members of the Press Agents Association in 1904, and recognized today as perhaps the leading private celebrity organization in entertainment, most people associate many of the classic funnymen of a bygone era -- Milton Berle, George Burns, Buddy Hackett, Henny Youngman -- with the Friars. But perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the 2000 documentary about the club, entitled Let Me In, I Hear Laughter, is the charitable history of the organization (they fund several college scholarships and sponsor such diverse causes as The Gay Men's Health Crisis and Catholic Relief Services) as well as the number of non-comedians who have belonged to -- and continue to comprise -- the Friars membership. This so-called collection of jesters and jivers is responsible for millions of dollars of donations every year. And in the early days, the Friars' rolls consisted of all manner of artisans from the business of show. Famous composers like Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan, actors including Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, and singers ranging from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole, were all full-fledged "monks." While today it may be considered a place for has-beens to dine with hangers-on (with a few too-cool-for-school up-and-comers around for the "camp" value), the Friars is much more, and Let Me In highlights this fact very nicely.
Let Me In, I Hear Laughter does a fine job of charting the course of this archetypal showbiz club from its humble roots to its household name, providing insight and information that even a devoted fan to the history of humor would be unaware of. Now, this is a very basic investigation of the group. Knowing that access to heretofore unseen (or unheard) Roast material is the spread that butters his ballyhoo, director Dean Ward glosses over various aspects of the group and its makeup to stick with what's funny -- namely, the comedians and their wicked acerbity. Why overplay the archeological aspects when you've got Buddy Hackett sharing blue humor anecdotes about the people he's worked with? Who cares what happened once when you can watch Pat Cooper blow a goomba gasket over some issue that really irritates him? Yet it is indeed within the confines of the organization's notable mainstay, the legendary Roasts, where the Friars obvious entertainment strengths lie. So the organized assaults on a single victim with the intent of humorously knocking him down a peg is where Let Me In really unleashes the big guffaw guns. During these marathon missions of clear-cut character assassination (some of which are shown in old newsreel footage, others offering only audio excerpts over photographic montages), we see the artful game of the putdown and the splendor of the snappy comeback played perfectly by some of the unquestionable geniuses of the genre. In these riotous and blistering exchanges between titans of the well-timed joke, a whole lost world of wit and cleverness is at long last uncovered for the modern audience to witness in awe-inspired wonder.
Excellent examples include Robin Williams's wonderful spearing of a sickly Richard Pryor (to whom the word "roast" holds a historically hilarious double meaning) and the late, great Buddy Hackett (perhaps no other comedian represents the Friars mystique better than this rotund rascal) telling the audience and the attendees where they can go, peppering his piss-off with lots of lovely expletives. Even the older material, tributes, and assails from the '40s and '50s ring with a brilliance, as classic bits from Berle, Don Rickles, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and the toastmaster General himself, Georgie Jessel, enliven the proceedings with their superior touch of tastelessness. The Friars make no apologies for the often-offensive nature of their events. Jan Murray, a famous face -- at least to those of us who grew up in the '70s -- argues that without the ability to speak freely, a Friars show would be too impersonal and polished. Murray argues that funny people, no matter the way in which they work normally, need the complete liberty to do whatever they want at the Roasts. It's the only time they can let their hair down and be who they really are. This no-holds-barred system has gotten the group in trouble. The infamous Whoopi Goldberg / Ted Danson "minstrel show" blackface controversy is dealt with here, the film giving this major news event from 1993 the right amount of coverage for the international effect it had on the Friars as an organization.
But this does not mean that Let Me In handles all scandal and storms with equal insight. There is some material here that's not really touched on, issues that could themselves make up a fascinating documentary. In 1988, famed feminist attorney Gloria Allred became a member of the California Friars Club, breaking down the gender barrier for the first time (women were often honored by the organization, but never allowed to join the group). Apparently this was a very divisive move among the Friars, and we do hear from a few of the old-timers about how that situation "destroyed" the club. But current Friars fellow Freddy Roman merely sweeps the story aside with a well-prepared soundbite, and that's the end of the discrimination discussion -- which itself raises another series of questions. Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole were members of the organization long before integration was a hot topic in the United States. So how did this come about? Was there equal protest to the inclusion of male minorities? How did African Americans and other individuals of color become members of a group that, until the late '80s, wouldn't let a lady join? Sadly, none of this is addressed here. And with the wealth of wonderful talent on display, would it have hurt to let the old-timers riff just a little more. Someone like Henny Youngman works best en masse, not in miniature. Yet many times a living (or barely living) legend is cut off in mid-routine, leaving the viewer wanting some comic closure. But all minor quibbles aside, Let Me In accomplishes the goal it had from the beginning: to showcase the Friars Club, its history, and the people who've populated its podiums and prosceniums. And it does it with fun and a sure sense of respect.
Kultur, a name that heretofore did not necessarily inspire admiration in DVD presentation, does a very nice -- if very basic -- packaging of this title. The audio and video are very good (this documentary was originally made for Cinemax, which obviously kept this print in excellent shape) and we get a crisp, clean 1.33:1 full screen image. There is not a lot of aural invention to the title, so the Dolby Digital Stereo simply provides a voice-forward, extremely professional soundtrack for the viewer. Though there are no bonuses per se on this disc, the movie itself offers a final seven minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, moments of off-the-cuff humor, and clearly cut stories that add an interesting dimension to the DVD. So make sure to stick around after the credits are over to see these special sequences.
Some additional content on the club, or the context in which this documentary was created, would have been nice. A commentary from some of the remaining Friars would have been both moving and maniacally hilarious. Still, it's just nice to have this relic around, a reminder of the generational differences in comedy as well as of the lasting skill and influence of the old-school view of humor. Let Me In, I Hear Laughter may not cover all the bases in the Friars legacy, and there are a few times where the proposed wit doesn't really translate to a post-millennial audience. But when a well-tuned comic engine takes the Roasting arena and fuels the flaming fires, there is no way to hold back the hilarity. Let Me In is an amazing testament to an equally exceptional organization. And for many, it will be their only chance at seeing humor from a necessary, if sometimes corny, historical viewpoint. It's not to be missed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The New York Friars Club
* White Star Video