Judge Erich Asperschlager will be here all week. Tip your servers well.
"A man falls out of a building—lands on the sidewalk. Another guy
runs up to him and says 'What happened?' He says, 'I dunno. I just got here
Who says PBS isn't hip? Sure, it's got plenty of programming aimed at the antiques-and-anglophile demographic, but it's also branching out into popular culture territory. The documentary series Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America could have been a bone-dry look at comedy in the first half of the 20th century. Instead, this six-part series is a whirlwind tour of all things funny from the early 1900s to today, hosted by comedy superstar Billy Crystal and narrated by Amy Sedaris. The overall effect fits the educational purpose of public broadcasting, but with a willingness to poke fun at itself.
The series begins with Crystal doing a faux-Ken Burns take on comedy, complete with aging photographs and historical "facts" about things like the earliest known joke in a cave painting. That false start sets the tone for the series. Yes, you're watching PBS, and yes we're taking a serious look at comedy, but hey—how serious do you expect us to be?
Make 'Em Laugh is wisely divided not by chronology, but by topic. The first episode, "Nerds, Jerks, and Oddballs," focuses on those lovable schlubs and outcasts who found a place in the world by making fun of it—including silent film star Harold Lloyd, the flamboyant Phyllis Diller, neurotic obsessives like Woody Allen, otherworldy wierdos like Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams, meta comics like Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, and raunch-comedy golden boy Judd Apatow.
Episode two, "Breadwinners and Homemakers," focuses on the rise of the sitcom from the days of Molly Goldberg and I Love Lucy through genre-busting series like The Simpsons and Seinfeld. The episode examines not only the evolution of the form, but also the way its stars and stories reflected the mood of the times, drawing through lines from the suburban family life of The Dick Van Dyke Show to changing societal roles in All in the Family and Roseanne.
Taking a step back to perhaps the most basic form of comedy, "The Knockabouts" looks at those comedians who were willing to take a fall or break a bone to get a laugh. This episode favors the first half of the 20th century, but it's a fair trade to see geniuses like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at work. Though their careers faded with the advent of "talkies," the pratfall didn't. Laurel and Hardy flourished with the transition, as did, ironically, Harpo Marx who turned a bad review into a career by choosing to keep his mouth shut. Physical comedy eventually fell out of favor, but that didn't stop rubber-faced talents Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey from continuing the tradition.
If slapstick represents an old form of comedy, what about those who blazed their own trails, "The Groundbreakers"—those comedians who rejected the mores and morals of their times. Mae West caused many a scandal with her innuendoes, while Moms Mabley challenged the accepted role of a black woman. Constant run-ins with the law took their toll on Lenny Bruce, but his work paved the way for other comedians to take on hypocrisy. While the Smothers Brothers fought CBS for the right to mock the establishment, Richard Pryor and George Carlin took their material to nightclubs and college campuses, championing the first amendment and asking their audiences to join them in dangerous territory.
Other comedians liked to mock the people around them. Episode five, "The Wiseguys," is a tribute to them. W.C. Fields had his reputation for hard drinking and good-natured child abuse, while Groucho Marx never met an aristocrat he didn't want to take down a peg. Some wiseguys, like Phil Silvers, brought their comedy to a national TV audience. Others, like Redd Foxx, were best known for the kind of records you'd only hear in more adult settings.
Closing the series, "Satire and Parody" takes a look at the people, magazines, and television shows that turn the world on its head and bend reality to their comedic will. MAD Magazine still skewers popular culture with its spot-on cartoons, as does Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Other shows, like Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, and In Living Color are long gone but not forgotten.
What binds these disparate comedians together? They make us laugh. Sure, they make us think, or make us uncomfortable, or make us glad we're not that guy over there. But they make us laugh.
Comedy is subjective. Make 'Em Laugh does the tough work of summarizing the American comedy experience in just under six hours. Chances are, you'll finish this set and think "What about (blank)? Why didn't they include him/her?" Then some of you will get mad and write angry e-mails or twitters and tell your friends not to bother with this documentary, never thinking that your friends would watch this set and get mad that someone completely different had been omitted. I would have liked to see them talk about Bill Murray, or the cast of SCTV, but hey, that's show business. Director Michael Kantor and co-writer Laurence Maslon chose the comedians that they felt best represented the major genres and movements of American comedy in the 20th century. Sorry, Mark Twain fans. That's just the way it is.
Kantor deserves a lot of credit for trying to hit a sweet spot between analysis and entertainment. There are plenty of talking head interviews with comedians and writers dissecting their craft, but there are just as many clips from classic TV shows, movies, and performances. Make 'Em Laugh is smart and informational, but it's always funny.
Because it was made for television, Make 'Em Laugh stays pretty family friendly, bleeping out most of Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" routine, for instance. Some of the content isn't for the kiddies, but if you can get them to watch a six-hour PBS documentary they're probably old enough for anything here.
If you saw this set in a store and didn't know it had aired on PBS, you might not ever know it. Rhino has done a beautiful job with the set. Instead of the single-case overlapping DVD layout so popular these days, the three discs of Make 'Em Laugh are housed in a bright, colorful cardboard foldout with a matching slipcase. The widescreen presentation is a nice bonus for those of us who like documentaries and our hi-def TVs. The only downside is that because most of the archival footage was shot in 4:3 format, there's a whole lotta cropping going on. It's not the worst sin, but I'm sure it will tick off some people. The audio is a straightforward stereo mix—no fancy surround sound here.
What if you already saw the series when it aired, though? Is it worth picking up on DVD? For most PBS documentaries, it seems like the only reason to buy the discs is for posterity. Make 'Em Laugh ups the ante with more than an hour of bonus interviews and 10 total minutes of comedians from Jerry Seinfeld to Mickey Rooney sharing their favorite jokes.
Though it won't please everyone, Make 'Em Laugh is a hilarious overview of American comedy that takes itself just seriously enough. See, learning can be fun.
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