Any great documentary leaves you feeling a greater knowledge and fulfillment about the subject matter, and wanting to further share your newfound knowledge with even more people. Any good documentary gives you insight into a subject and leaves you wanting more. Judging from the first two hours of the six-hour PBS treatment from WNET, Make 'Em Laugh, which debuts tonight (and I just finished watching via screener), you'll get a good, almost-great examination of the past century of comedy performances.
Billy Crystal opens the series with a NSFW Civil War joke, letting audiences know that this is not going to be that kind of PBS documentary project. Crystal nominally hosts each hour with a comedy segment introducing that hour's topic, while Amy Sedaris provides voiceover narration. Another common thematic device for the narrative — arrange comedians by an archetype, open with the most contemporary and popular example, then flashback a century and work your way chronologically back to the future, so to speak. "Hopefully, it's not hamfisted," Michael Kantor said at a preview panel at the 92Y last month. Kantor, the series producer, director and writer, said there's some rare footage of Woody Allen, and some early Paul Lynde that we'll get to see. "By and large, we tried to air footage that you couldn't find at the rental store," Kantor said. Rental store? Who goes to those anymore? Anyhow. This doc is must viewing for comedy fans to know that their generation wasn't the first or the funniest to get a joke. "I think Americans need to be reminded of our own history sometimes," Kantor said. That's as true about comedy, it turns out, as it is about politics.
The first hour, "Nerds, Jerks and Oddballs," examines the role of outsiders in comedy. So we start with the man who everyone in Hollywood was bowing to in the past year, Judd Apatow, who tells us: "I'm just trying to reflect the attitudes of me and my friends." To those who criticize Apatow for bringing immaturity to the forefront, he reminds us: "Really, there's no comedy that isn't about immaturity."
Then we're whisked back to the 1910s, and Harold Lloyd, who emerged in silent film by putting on trademark glasses and portraying the misfit desperately trying to fit in. There's some good footage from a 1962 interview with Lloyd here. Then we jump to Bob Hope, and sure, for many people, you think of Hope's USO tours, his TV specials in his later years, but Hope in his early films often played a wannabe ladies' man who turned out to be a coward. He'd take this character to greater heights once he paired up with Bing Crosby for their "road movies" of the 1940s and 50s. But we really get going in this hour when one of my childhood favorites, Jonathan Winters, gets screen time for his character-based pieces and improvised routines. Yes, there are props! And you want an oddball? What was more odd than a female stand-up in the 1950s? We learn about Jean Carroll, and also see how Phyllis Diller managed to have five kids before launching her career at 37. 37! Woody Allen, meanwhile, got his first big TV writing gig at 17. 17! Wow. Just, wow. We're reminded of just how funny Woody Allen was, and still is (his Vicky Cristina Barcelona just won best comedy at the Golden Globes). Cheech and Chong represented the hippie counterculture and also ushered in the age of stoner comedy. Andy Kaufman (and Tony Clifton) bewildered us and amazed us. As Conan O'Brien wonders of Kaufman's running scam about wrestling women, he asks who is the target audience. "It's so clearly just for him." Steve Martin relished the oddball take on comedy and attracted arena-sized audiences. There's a brief look at nerds, exemplified by actor Jaleel White's "Urkel," who he said he based on Martin Short's Ed Grimley and Paul Reubens' Pee-Wee Herman. Now, at that moment, you're probably thinking it'd be great to get several minutes from Short and Reubens. Sorry. Not this time. Instead, we jump over to Robin Williams, and then very briefly back for a Lord Buckley reference.
The second hour, "Breadwinners and Homemakers," examines TV families. So sit back you'll see The Simpsons, Leave it to Beaver (Matt Groening said in creating The Simpsons, he really was creating a show for the son of Eddie Haskell in Bart Simpson), then back to the advent of TV and radio crossovers such as The Goldbergs, George Burns and Gracie Allen, then to I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show (which helped inspire a generation of comedy writers by portraying the workplace of a comedy show), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (friends are family, and also women's liberation), a brief glimpse of The Odd Couple (divorcees), then All in The Family (tackling the tough issues of race and gender politics), The Cosby Show (it's the parents vs. the kids, and also a major breakthrough for black America), Roseanne (more cynical, more blue-collar), and Seinfeld (conversations among friends about the little things). It's really just a really good clip package. But from what I'm seeing right now on the third hour on physical comedy and slapstick, "The Knockabouts," I'm very pleased and looking forward to watching this again along with the additional three hours on groundbreakers, wiseguys and satirists. But I wanted to at least give you a sense of tonight's first two hours before they air.
Online, the site has even more going on, including a closer look, at, yes, "Teh Internets," featuring many of the young New York comics working today. It is, naturally, NSFW.