I had more fun watching Make 'em Laugh
, PBS' three-night series on the history of American comedy, than watching almost anything else that I've seen in months. I laughed, I learned (Jerry Lewis actually was funny at one time, as were the Smothers Brothers), I wanted more.
But when the six hours ended, I also felt primed for an argument. As in: How could they do this series without pointing out the significant contributions of David Letterman, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, the Little Rascals, Dr. Strangelove
, Animal House
or This is Spinal Tap
? Or spend more time on Judd Apatow than Johnny Carson? And when Bill Maher observes that Lenny Bruce ultimately "forgot to be a comedian," wasn't that worth more discussion?
I could go on, but I don't want to dissuade you from watching. Not at all. What is
included in Make 'em Laugh
is entertaining and insightful without being overly analytical. In other words, while the series includes ample perspective from historians, writers and comics, it doesn't suck the life out of the humor. (Sample comment: Larry Gelbart of M*A*S*H
fame says of Jack Benny, "He would look at the audience with the look of a calf that had just found out where veal came from.")
Make 'em Laugh
is broken into six parts devoted to "Nerds, Jerks and Oddballs," "Breadwinners and Homemakers," "The Knockabouts," "The Ground Breakers," "The Wiseguys" and "Satire and Parody." Even when the material being covered is obvious - as in "Breadwinners and Homemakers," which is about sitcoms - this series still manages to dip into forgotten or less-heralded territory by recalling sitcoms such as The Goldbergs
and early female comics like Jean Carroll.
The makers of Make 'em Laugh
unearthed some wonderful footage, including interviews with Buster Keaton, as well as numerous shocking reminders of how standards have changed. What Archie Bunker, Saturday Night Live
and Richard Pryor said on broadcast TV in the 1970s about race would never be allowed today. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone even trying.
But what's most enjoyable about these six hours is hearing great comic performers and students of comedy like Chris Rock, George Carlin, Steve Martin and many, many others reminisce about favorite comics, sketches and jokes. Michael McKean talks about Laurel and Hardy with indescribable pleasure and awe. Joan Rivers marvels at Lenny Bruce's willingness to be a "warrior" for free speech. Dick Van Dyke expresses genuine reverence for Jim Carrey.
So despite what's left out, there's more than enough great material here. And even if you have no interest, make sure to see the opening minute of the first part, which features Billy Crystal's laugh-out-loud parody of one of PBS' greatest achievements. I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil the joke.