Produced by Thirteen/WNET and Ghost Light Films, in association with Rhino Entertainment and BBC, Make ‘Em Laugh is produced and directed by Michael Kantor and co-written by Kantor and Laurence Maslon. The documentary series ran on PBS for six episodes starting January 13th, and the DVD set is available in stores now.

Hosted by Billy Crystal and narrated by Amy Sedaris, the series blends performances, biographical portraits, and American history to illustrate how comedy has mirrored the political and social changes in American society. The episode titled “The Wiseguys” featured clips and bits about comics who pushed the envelope of what was acceptable in America, from Mae West to Lenny Bruce to George Carlin.

Comedy has also been used to reflect society, as well as hold behaviors up for ridicule. Such was the case of shows like “All in the Family.” The bigotry of Archie Bunker was portrayed so over the top it was funny, but it also made thinking people stop and consider the underlying point. Commenting about this show and comics who raised social consciousness, Billy Crystal said, “The comic has to tell the truth, otherwise the audience isn’t going to trust you.”

Each hour-long episode focuses on a different form of comedy, from slapstick and satire to stand-up and sitcoms. Comics who were featured or interviewed for the series includes: Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar, Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, Larry Wilmore, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Richard Lewis, Jon Stewart, and many others.

Some of the clip highlights include classic lines such as Jack Benny’s response to “Your money or your life”  — absolute silence until prompted again when he said, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” And Gracie Allen’s, “You said when I went to visit Mrs. Bagley I should take her flowers. “ Beat. “So I did.” The comedic timing in both instances was as powerful as the joke.

Anyone who loves comedy will enjoy this DVD set, although the absence of such great sit-coms as “M.A.S.H.”, “Barney Miller”, and “WKRP in Cincinnati” is a significant omission.

The series also features  interviews with comedians discussing comedy, including Roseanne Barr on sitcoms versus stand-up; James L. Brooks on “The Simpsons”; Carol Burnett on Lucille Ball; Joan Rivers on Bill Cosby; Cheech Marin on Lenny Bruce; as well as appearances by George Carlin, Richard Lewis, and more. Among the others was Hugh Hefner, who made a comment about Woody Allen that was neither tasteful nor relevant to the subject matter. In fact, the series would have played better without his commentary at all. It was never made clear what his connection to comedy is.

Overall, Make ‘Em Laugh is a good series and the DVD is well worth watching. The viewer is left with the thought that there will always be comedy, and there will always be satire.

Thank God for that.
A three-DVD collection available for a suggested list price of $34.95

Maryann Miller          Maryann’s Web site

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