A compelling argument can be made that the idea of attempting to document the entire history of American comedy in the space of six hours is a silly one to begin with. As a result, it would be easy to criticize Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America for what it leaves out rather than what it smashes in, for what it does wrong rather than what it does right. But the fact of that matter is that, condensed and spotty and occasionally rushed though it might be, Make 'Em Laugh is consistently watchable, entirely entertaining, and often quite fascinating. It is not, as it would like to be, the last word on American comedy, but there's so much good stuff in it that you're likely not to mind.
The six one-hour episodes (closer to 52 minutes, actually) are organized by topic rather than straight chronology. Each episode follows roughly the same format; "host" Billy Crystal does a brief (and usually unnecessary) prologue, which is followed by a montage/explainer segment laying out the style of comedy or comedian to be profiled. Director Michael Kantor and narrator Amy Sedaris then profile a few of the practitioners of that style (often starting with a modern example and then jumping back to the roots), with the help of archival and new interviews and an astonishing wealth of vintage clips.
Episode one is "Would Ya Hit A Guy With Glasses? Nerds, Jerks, & Oddballs," reflecting on the weirdos and outsiders. We start with the modern comedies of Judd Apatow before jumping back to the silent work of Harold Lloyd; Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, Woody Allen, Cheech & Chong, Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams follow suit (with an unfortunate detour to Jaleel White, TV's "Steve Urkel,"--I wish I were making that up). This first episode has got some weak spots--particularly Crystal's strained opening--but there is some really great archival footage here, particularly the terrific early TV appearances of Allen and Winters.
Next is "Honey, I'm Home!: Breadwinners and Homemakers," an examination of sitcoms, especially family-style ones. The analysis in this second episode, not just by writers and comics but cultural historians, is especially strong, laying out the social shifts that affected the families on TV--and the shifts that those families may have brought about. The expected heavy-hitters are brought in: I Love Lucy, Burns & Allen, and The Honeymooners all get their due, The Dick Van Dyke Show naturally transitions into The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All In The Family's influence is explained in detail before we move (via some fairly harsh criticism of Family by Bill Cosby) to The Cosby Show, which then begat Roseanne. The episode begins with The Simpsons before hopping back to the first family sitcom, the seldom-seen The Goldbergs; its clips are quite interesting. The episode's final transition, to Seinfeld, is a little bumpy (nearly every other sitcom mentioned is a family-based show), and the lack of love for Cheers is a little startling. But this is a good installment, even in light of the somewhat depressing note that it ends on.
The third episode is the awkwardly-titled "Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts." This time, the emphasis is on all-out slapstick (though lip service is given to the other skills of the profiled comics), resulting in one of the most quickly-paced, purely entertaining installments. Chaplin and Keaton get plenty of coverage, as do Laurel & Hardy; Harpo Marx is singled out for his contributions to the Marx Brothers (Groucho and the rest of the crew come back in episode five). The editors clearly enjoyed assembling their several montages of Three Stooges action, while Lucille Ball makes a return appearance (this time with an interesting discussion of her process and craftsmanship). Jerry Lewis also gets the treatment (mostly through his time working with Dean Martin), which is of course a natural transition to Jim Carrey.
The series' finest hour is its fourth, "When I'm Bad, I'm Better: The Groundbreakers," a thought-provoking examination of comics who tested boundaries and often lost their jobs (or even went to jail) for it. We see the usual suspects: Mae West, Lenny Bruce (his segment is especially heartbreaking, particularly in Joan Rivers' analysis: "Lenny was a warrior."), Richard Pryor (new interviews with Chris Rock and the late George Carlin on Pryor's power and influence are especially insightful), and Carlin (spiced up by some remarkable clips of his early, "square" persona). But respect is also given to some of the less-acknowledged envelope-pushers, like Moms Mabley, Mort Sahl, and Shelley Berman. The epic network struggles of the Smothers Brothers also get a once-over (for more on this compelling tale, check out Maureen Muldaur's excellent documentary Smothered).
"Never Give A Sucker An Even Break: The Wiseguys," covers the more anti-social, anti-authoritarian comic figures--the fast-talkers, con men, and button-pushers. Larry David is the first one out of the box before skipping back to the great W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers (particularly Groucho), Jack Benny (huh?), Phil Silvers, Paul Lynde (in an engrossing segment that analyzes how he somehow seemed to gain power and confidence from his closeted homosexuality), Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock.
The series wraps up with "Sock It To Me? Satire and Parody." This hour profiles the comics and groups that have made bread-and-butter of the world around them, sending up politicians and parodying pop culture. Will Rogers gets a too-brief glance, but this edition's pay dirt is in digging up rare TV appearances by music satirists Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman. Mad Magazine gets a deserved shout-out, as do the films of Mel Brooks; Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett, Laugh-In, and Saturday Night Live are properly acknowledged as well. There is an inexplicable mention of Billy Crystal's Oscar hosting gigs (one wonders if this segment would have made the cut were Crystal not the ostensible host of this program) before quick stops at Johnny Carson, In Living Color, and The Daily Show.
Some of the inclusions are a little baffling (I'm not sure if anyone would consider Jack Benny a "wiseguy," though if they did, they might also be convinced that Abbott & Costello were satirists), and a few of the profiles are irritatingly brief and shallow. But there is still much to admire here--primarily the terrific sea of vintage clips. Many are culled from the talk and variety shows of the 50s, 60s, and 70s; so few of them can be easily viewed that many are a revelation (who knew that Joan Rivers used to be so funny?).
The interviews are also quite good. In addition to the comics and writers, the series draws on the insights of several eloquent historians (I'm such a comedy nerd that I was ecstatic to see that one of their many talking heads was Joe Adamson; his book on the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo, is absolutely indispensable). One of the joys of the interviews with the comics is hearing them wax rhapsodic about their particular influences; Chris Rock praises Don Rickles ("When I host an awards show, I'm doing Don Rickles"), Carlin remembers his childhood love of the Marx Brothers, and Judd Apatow declares that "W.C. Fields is the funniest guy of anybody, ever." Rock is a particularly thoughtful and astute commentator; this guy really gets not just why he's funny, but what makes good comedians tick.
In general, the series is slickly produced, well-edited, and downright entertaining. It may sacrifice substance for style on more than one occasion, but it certainly keeps you interested. Apatow notes, on camera, "I'm not great at describing why things are funny, because there's nothing more boring than that." Well, Make 'Em Laugh is a lot of things, but it's not boring.
From the standpoint of video presentation, Make 'Em Laugh comes up very short. The series is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, and for the most part, the new interview footage is clean and sharp (though I did spot a few compression artifacts in some of the background blacks). Much of the source footage is in pretty rough shape (Lynde's Hollywood Squares appearances probably look the worst, covered in dirt and scratches), often with the expected shininess of the kinescopes they were originally recorded on. For the most part, the shaky quality is acceptable in light of their historical importance (though is there any reason that clips from Roseanne should look this bad?)
However, the filmmakers made the regrettable decision to attempt, whenever possible, to convert the show's considerable amount of 4:3 footage into widescreen--slicing off the tops and bottoms of those square images. The result not only destroys the original compositions (an equivalent crime to pan-and-scanning), but results in a crowded, awkward, claustrophobic, and generally ugly image (for example, when clips from Groucho Marx's quiz show You Bet Your Life are cropped, the seated Groucho barely fits into the same frame as his standing guests; he is basically cut off at the neck). There are occasions when this cropping clearly couldn't be done and the 4:3 image is instead matted within the 1.78:1 frame; this choice should have been made throughout the show.
The 2.0 stereo soundtrack is the very definition of basic: the audio is all clear, audible, and consistent, with nothing lost but no separation to speak of. It gets the job done, but you certainly aren't in any danger of waking the neighbors.
The bonus features are a bit of a frustration--the materials clearly existed to really supplement the set, but Rhino (usually reliable when it comes to extras) apparently just couldn't be bothered. The set comes packed onto three discs (two episodes per disc), and each disc sports the same format for its special features.
Each has a Jokes section, in which some (but not nearly enough) of the interviewed comics tell favorite jokes. Some are, surprisingly enough, not terribly funny (though I'm not sure why I thought Carlos Mencia would suddenly amuse me here).
More irritating are the Extended Interviews, in which some (again, not all) of the interviewed comedians get a minimum of additional screen time. I'm not exaggerating--most of these snippets are barely a minute long, some less. And I'm not saying that, say, Robert Klein has several snippets of a minute or so each; I'm saying, you select Klein from the extended interviews, and you see a single minute-or-less clip. I've seen other documentaries on DVD (When The Levees Broke; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) that included an entire additional disc of unused interview segments; while I'm not asking for that, it might have been nice to have seen something more like five or ten minutes from one of George Carlin's last interviews.
(Though, as a sidebar, I will tell you to seek out Bob Newhart's great story in disc two's extended interviews, detailing how he received his highest compliment from Richard Pryor.)
It's tough to make a judicious call on Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America; there is much to admire and much to disparage. Overall, the flaws of the series (and this set), while notable, weren't enough to negate the archaeological value of the clips and the pure entertainment value of the documentary. It is recommended, albeit with some reservations.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.