PBS gets on the laugh track with new documentary ‘Make 'Em Laugh'
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT) - According to most historians, the first comedy bit took place in 3,000 B.C. when a caveman bopped his roommate on the head with a club, sending his startled victim into the flames of a nearby fire.
The title and the involvement of PBS may suggest an academic approach that would trigger more chin stroking than belly laughing, but the series is light on its feet, more committed to sharing side-splitting footage then deconstructing the nature and history of humor.
"E.B. White famously once said, 'Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies,'" said Michael Kantor, the show's creator and director. In his last TV project, "Broadway: The American Musical," Kantor said he was "able to give insight into American history and the evolution of our culture, and I thought I could do that as well through comedy with all of its glory and weirdness."
Not that there isn't a lot to learn. Sprinkled throughout the six hours are nuggets on how Harold Lloyd discovered his inner nerd when he donned a set of glasses; why Bart Simpson is the son of Eddie Haskell, that brown-nosing, two-timing weasel on "Leave It to Beaver"; how Harry Houdini nicknamed Buster Keaton after the youngster took a stumble at six months of age and didn't shed a tear; and why a scathing review convinced Harpo Marx to hit the mute button.
But those who expect Ken Burns-type revelations will be disappointed. (In fact, the project sets itself apart from the PBS master in an opening sketch by host Billy Crystal, poking fun at Burns' somber approach.) Instead, you get a treasure trove of material dedicated to faded masters of the form, including Jonathan Winters, Gertrude Berg and Mae West, all of whom are connected to more contemporary descendants by an all-star roster of commentators.
That list includes Chris Rock talking about the mystique of Eddie Murphy, Dick Van Dyke comparing himself to Jim Carrey and Joan Rivers paying homage to Phyllis Diller. Amy Sedaris serves as narrator.
As revealing as the clips are the sources they come from. Over the course of three nights, you'll see material from a number of long-forgotten variety shows hosted by Dinah Shore, Ray Stevens, Helen Reddy and Flip Wilson, a reminder of just how heavily prime-time used to lean on stand-up comedians.
With that in mind, it's slightly stunning that Kantor all but ignores late-night TV, where this generation gets most of its laughs. David Letterman and Jay Leno are completely missing, and Johnny Carson gets just a two-minute tribute in the project's waning moments. On the other hand, there is plenty of time for a segment on Paul Lynde.
"There's no doubt there's going to be some tough calls in terms of what we'll have to leave out," Kantor said in an interview that took place while he was still assembling the project. "It's such a broad canvas, but we'll pick the stuff that leads to a richer story."
By simply offering dusty clips of some of the masters at work, Kantor has given us a half-full but still dazzling treasure chest.
MAKE 'EM LAUGH: THE FUNNY BUSINESS OF AMERICA
8 p.m. EST Wednesday, Jan. 21 and Jan. 28
© 2009, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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