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Make ‘Em Laugh — Tonight on PBS


by Jerome Weeks 14 Jan 2009

Make ‘Em Laugh — the new history of American comedy starting tonight on KERA-TV — is funny, at least judging from the first two episodes that I’ve viewed (ultimately, it’ll be six hours long). If only it were something more than that … I was keen to watch it for several reasons — not just […]

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Make ‘Em Laugh — the new history of American comedy starting tonight on KERA-TV — is funny, at least judging from the first two episodes that I’ve viewed (ultimately, it’ll be six hours long).

If only it were something more than that …

I was keen to watch it for several reasons — not just for the obvious pleasure in discovering new comedians or re-living favorite routines. Fact is, the vast majority of humor doesn’t age very well. People talk about humor being “universal” or “timeless,” but a great deal of it actually isn’t.

This was brought home to me by author Roy Blount, Jr. — and then by my teenage daughter. I interviewed Blount on the occasion of his anthology of Southern humor and he mentioned how amazing Mark Twain was and is. It’s not just that he’s funny (or much more than just funny). It’s that such a high percentage of his material is still funny. (if you were forced to read Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer in high school and concluded the ‘funny parts’ were all just very old-fashioned hick humor, I suggest you try some of Twain’s shorter essays — and then go back to Finn and Sawyer.)

At the time, Twain was one of a dozen or so regional humorists. But very few people — even literary scholars — remember many of the others, outside of, perhaps, Bret Harte or maybe Joel Chandler Harris, the creator of Uncle Remus. For the most part, Blount reported, they really weren’t worth remembering — he’d scoured old periodicals and anthologies for any ‘lost jewels’ and didn’t find many.

What he learned was that most of our period references age quickly. In a generation, certainly in two, the great majority of people will not know what was so funny about pet rocks, Sarah Palin, Paris Hilton or smoking dope. In particular, so much witty, topical humor depends on us knowing what’s up. In effect, such humor rewards us for being up to date, being in the know —  about ‘rednecks’ or ‘showbiz’ or ‘intellectual subjects.’ Think of Woody Allen’s jokes about existentialism. They couldn’t have existed at any other time but the late ’50s, early ’60s, after existentialism had spread and enough post-war folks had gone to college (thanks to the GI Bill) to understand what he was talking about.

But as the old line goes, if you have to explain the joke, it’s isn’t funny. Or rather, it may no longer be funny. Within a month or so of my talk with Blount, I brought home a boxed set of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (who, I must say, haven’t appeared on Make ‘Em Laugh yet, but they’d better). I figured my daughter would love them; we have similar tastes in TV shows and stand-ups. But during the second or third episode, after having to explain the fifth or sixth in-joke about Eisenhower, the Cold War,  ’60s television programs (Huntley and Brinkley anyone?), I gave up.

As is made evident in the first episode in Make ‘Em Laugh, this is one reason Steve Martin’s old  concert routines hold up very well — they have almost no “content.”

They are often “ironic” in the broadest fashion. They’re humor about stupidly and obviously trying to be “humorous” (arrow through head, playing banjo badly, mocking oneself). Sure enough, my daughter — whose primary experience with Martin has been either watching a few of his earlier, better films (Roxanne) and then wondering what happened to hi,m having endured ads for dozens of his recent efforts (The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen, Father of the Bride, The Out-of-Towners) — she laughed happily at still-brillilant routines that, in a way, amount to “clowing while commenting on the failure of clowning.”

In any event, the first episode of the series is a quick trip through comic figures — mostly stand-ups, that is — while the second looks at that great American art form (and I mean that sincerely), the family sitcom. Weirdly, as if to make sure that no one will think this is going to be stuffy, and perhaps out of fear that the series might scare off younger people with arcane discussion of the comedies of Aristophanes, the show, proper, opens with a lengthy, warm hug for the noted scholar, Judd Apatow.

But he mostly provides an easy-access entry into a look at the classic figure of ‘the outsider,’ beginning with the great silent comedian Harold Lloyd. We then leap forward through Bob Hope, Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, Woody Allen, Andy Kaufman — one would immediately expect some African-American comics to figure in here, but no. Which brings up the weaknesses here. The shows zip through so many figures without much depth of discussion — it hard to figure where it’s going, at least in the first episode. After Harold Lloyd, for instance, I was expecting Charlie Chaplin — a classic outsider (he was British, but his movies were American). But no.

And I certainly was expecting Richard Pryor — again, another incredible outsider figure. But no. I’m hoping some of these holes will be filled in later episodes, however.

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