Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business Of America (2008)
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The Hazards of Pinning Humour on a Card
I'm pretty sure this is another program that has two separate Rotten Tomatoes entries. The two are listed as being produced a year apart, and they have separate lists of people as stars. However, both lists include people who appear in the show, so here we are. I have chosen to put it under this one because it includes the picture. Simplistic, sure, but hey--it means I know for sure that this is the right one. It's a documentary produced by PBS, the BBC, and Rhino Home Video, that last being an unusual addition. It might also be the reason for the disparity; one date is the one when it aired on TV and the other is the one when it was released on DVD. However, the database is still full of all sorts of quirks, and trying to sort them all out is not my job. Then again, it doesn't seem to be anyone's job, based on the fact that they never get back to you about things like that.
Each of the six episodes of this miniseries examines a different type of American comedian. Episode one is "Would Ya Hit a Guy With Glasses?: Nerds, Jerks, & Oddballs." Episode two is "Honey, I'm Home!: Breadwinners and Homemakers." Episode three is "Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts." Episode four is "When I'm Bad I'm Better: The Groundbreakers." Episode five is Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: The Wiseguys." Episode six is "Sock It to Me: Parody and Satire." This of course does not cover all types of comedians, but it covers enough to get a broad overview. Each episode features a few specific examples of the type under discussion. Each example is illustrated through clips of the person or show (or occasionally movie) under discussion as well as interview segments with various figures in modern comedy and, at least occasionally, people with a personal connection to the figure in question, such as Harold Lloyd's granddaughter and Harpo Marx's son.
I think the miniseries does a decent if not great job of showing the state of modern humour in the US and how it's gotten there. Of course, you can't talk about American humour without covering at least a couple of Englishmen and at least a Canadian or two. Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel were English, and in fact Tommy Chong was born in the Canadian Rockies. But by highlighting people like that, by showing how they shaped what makes Americans laugh, it shows that American humour is the same as American culture. It takes from other sources, not worrying about their origins, and makes them its own. It's stereotypical to say it, but there's a lot of Jewish humour which has influenced the United States. Oh, George Carlin was raised Catholic--as, presumably, was Cheech Marin. Tommy Chong is Chinese. But the Marx Brothers of course were Jewish. Jon Stewart. Billy Crystal. Jack Benny. Lenny Bruce. Even, though I don't think he's funny, Jerry Seinfeld. The humour of the Outsider has shaped the country as the voice of the Outsider always does.
The problem with all of this, of course, is that six hours isn't much time, and so we really only touch on the high points. And, humour being subjective, they don't talk much about "but this isn't funny!" Though they do agree that Mae West has perhaps not weathered well. The revolutionary does tend to become prosaic after a while. And of course humour [i]is[/i] subjective. I know people who still do think Mae West is funny. The one subjective issue they should have touched on and didn't, though, is the Great Three Stooges Male Versus Female Debate. Nor did they touch on Chicks Aren't Funny. In fact, they didn't devote much of any time to much of any debate. They came close in that someone said that Lenny Bruce wasn't a revolutionary and that these modern comedians who just swear all the time are missing on the important part, which is that he was funny. But though they showed a clip of a discussion about whether or not there are taboos in comedy, they only showed the side from the person who they were talking about, Mort Sahl.
Comedy is an important force. The best way to bring down a powerful figure is to make them look ridiculous. Chaplin said he would not have made [i]The Great Dictator[/i] had he known about the horrors of Auschwitz, but we needed [i]The Great Dictator[/i] and "Der Fuhrer's Face" (and we do not touch on Spike Jones or Weird Al, though we do get Tom Lehrer and Alan Sherman) to fight back with. However, comedy does not do well talked over and pinned down. It's a well-known fact that explaining the joke kills it. Bill Marx shows us his father's famous coat, including where he loaded the sleeves full of knives for one of their great bits. Carol Burnett and others tell that Lucy wasn't herself funny but relied on a lot of work to seem funny. It's interesting, but even if I did love Lucy (I don't), I'm not sure I could watch an episode of the show now without looking for the work involved.
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