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Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America

(PBS; US DVD: 13 Jan 2009)

It’s not really Billy Crystal’s fault. Maybe it is, but he’s allowed benefit of the doubt. After all, his name’s not listed in the writing credits for the six-hour PBS miniseries history of American comedy, Make ‘Em Laugh. So, it’s certainly possible that the blame for his thuddingly unfunny opening host segments for each episode could go to the actual filmmakers behind this cheap pratfall of a series. After all, these are the guys who managed to rope in everyone from Groucho Marx to Mort Sahlt and Bill Cosby and get maybe a dozen solid hard laughs out of it.


The main problem with Make ‘Em Laugh is one of simple ambition. There was simply no way that anybody could have set out to survey the entire landscape of American comedy in a mere six hours—going from Chaplin to Seinfeld that quick can give you whiplash—and not give short shrift to the subject. Given a brief like that, with a decades-wide subject sprawling over comedy clubs, film, vaudeville, and television, failure was well-nigh inevitable. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been done, after all, multi-episode documentary series that bite off more than they can chew but still make a credible stab at providing a layman’s overview of the subject (Ken Burns’ Jazz, Vietnam: A Television History, and so on) have been a staple of PBS programming for years.


In short, the show just needed to be done smarter. And funnier. It wasn’t an impossible task.


Make ‘Em Laugh director Michael Kantor set himself a high bar back in 2004 when he created another public television show, Broadway: The American Musical, which did an excellent job of encapsulating a similarly sprawling domestic art form in too short a time. Of course, that show ultimately cohered much better than Make ‘Em Laugh for a simple reason: it ran chronologically. In a stroke of misplanning, Make ‘Em Laugh‘s episodes are split up into loosely-defined genres that then overlap and repeat each other, while still leaving vast swaths of territory uncovered.


The first episode, “Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses? Nerds, Jerks & Oddballs”. is probably the weakest of the bunch for this reason. Starting rather appropriately with interviewing the current king of nerd-funny, Judd Apatow, the episode then lays out the metamorphosis of the American outsider in comedy from Harold Lloyd’s hapless striver to Bob Hope’s coward to Woody Allen’s nerdy womanizer. The assortment of professional comics and cultural historians gathered for analysis offer plenty in the way of biographical tidbits and comedic critique, but the end result is something less than impressive. By creating episodes around an idea instead of a time period, and not coming up with a thought-provoking thesis, the end result seems more arbitrary than anything else.


Similarly disappointing is the fourth episode, “When I’m Bad, I’m Better: The Groundbreakers”, a baggy compilation that ropes in any comic considered to have broken a taboo. Although there are some interesting notes on now largely-forgotten comics like mid-century black vaudevillian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and more attention paid than usual to cerebral hipsters like Mort Sahl, the bulk of the episode focuses on the expected poster boys of naughtiness like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. If a more jagged point could have been made out of all of it, the episode wouldn’t have felt like such an ad-hoc thing. But we’re left with no lasting point, and the whole thing falls flat.


Other episodes cover physical comedy (“The Knockabouts”), the sitcom (“Honey I’m Home!”), wiseguys (“Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”), and satire and parody (“Sock It to Me?”). A couple (”…Sucker” in particular) are at least smarter in their selection of clips and so at least deliver a generous amount of laughs. But they are still all hamstrung by the poor organization and generally rushed timing. Nobody would suggest that one could leave nothing and nobody out in a mere six hours—whatever your taste might be, completely ignoring the likes of Adam Sandler or the comic-factory that is Second City seems just plain wrong—but the segues can sometimes be laughably broad.


“Honey I’m Home!” is particularly weak in this respect. Although it scores points early on by resurrecting clips of The Goldbergs, the 1949 series about a striving Jewish family in the Bronx that is considered the country’s first sitcom, the episode almost bursts at the seams trying to fit everything in. Leaping from The Dick Van Dyke Show to All in the Family to Seinfeld in what seems about five minutes makes a mockery of the episode’s whole conceit.


By trying to cover as many bases as possible, Make ‘Em Laugh doesn’t allow itself much time to develop many of its more intriguing ideas—such as when Rosanne Barr makes the arguable case that her sitcom was meant to document the dismantling of the American working class. The end result is too much like one of those glossy American Film Institute clip-specials that occasionally pop up on network TV. Even the special features on the DVD release, which are mostly lengthened interview segments, as well as some of the comics telling their favorite jokes, have a perfunctory feel to them. While there simply isn’t enough time for the kind of insider drilling-down that makes documentaries like The Aristocrats such a richer comic experience, a few centimeters more depth would have made a world of difference.


Even in its truncated and slapdash form, however, Make ‘Em Laugh is probably a worthy addition to the ranks of public television historical-cultural surveys, if only for the fact that it allows so many practitioners of the craft to get their moment of recognition, and to not have to show up for a Comedy Central roast in order for that to happen.

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Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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