PBS Humor Documentary IS a Laughing Matter

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For the next three Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET, PBS presents a six-hour humor documentary. Not a funny documentary, like This is Spinal Tap!, but a documentary about funny. And, thankfully, it’s funny.

Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America does a lot more right than wrong.

Instead of tracing the history of comedy chronologically, which would be the kiss of death in hoping to lure any audience members under 50, Make ‘Em Laugh does it thematically, and allows today’s comics to reflect upon, make connections with, and reveal their enthusiasms for the comics of yesterday, and the day before.

It’s nice to hear Jerry Seinfeld, for example, admire the individuality of Andy Kaufman’s approach to a standup performance. "You couldn’t get any more pure than Andy Kaufman," Seinfeld says with a smile. Conan O’Brien and the late George Carlin chime in, too, each with his own take on Kaufman’s oddball approach.

The best part of Make ‘Em Laugh is the tracing of the comedy family tree. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, reveals the inspiration for Bart Simpson as being nothing more — and nothing less — than the imagined offspring of a bratty character Groening loved from Leave It to Beaver. "Bart Simpson," Groening says, "IS the son of Eddie Haskell."

Lots of classic comics get their due — W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Phyllis Diller, Jack Benny, Don Rickles, the standup comedy of Woody Allen, The Smothers Brothers (hi, guys). But others, like Bob Newhart, are shortchanged, and if I have one problem with this series, it’s that the clips, in many cases, are neither the best nor funniest that could be chosen. And sometimes, there’s no effort to put the individual bits and jokes in context.

But the six hours will make you laugh, and there are some gems here: Watch for The Dating Game clips, for example, featuring Cheech & Chong as contestants. Or look, for example, for the Dr. Seuss illustration from 1950 that gave us the term "nerd." ("Nerkle," apparently, didn’t catch on as successfully.)

For younger viewers especially, Make ‘Em Laugh may get them to seek out old DVDs, and new ones, featuring some fabulous comic minds. It’s a noble effort, and a good series, and even comedy devotees will find something new here. Good for director-writer-producer Michael Kantor, whose last lengthy PBS triumph was Broadway: The American Musical.

He and co-writer Laurence Masion have done it again: created a collective documentary that comes impressively close to being as good as the sum of its parts.

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