Isn't there something inherently antithetical about taking a "serious" look at comedy? That's part of what hampers at least the first couple of episodes of Make 'Em Laugh, a six part PBS series which begins broadcasting nationally this week. As a clip show, Make 'Em Laugh is a treasure trove. As a thoughtful analysis of what it is that makes American comedy unique, it's somewhat more of a crapshoot, with some excellent "deep thoughts" interspersed with more anecdotal moments that do little other than simply comment on whatever clip we happen to be watching.
Make 'Em Laugh has the very best of intentions, of that there's no doubt. But in its oddly structured format what could have been an insightful look at a century or so of American comedy too often seems like the fodder for pledge-break material that host Billy Crystal in fact parodies in one of the later episodes. There's such a surfeit of wonderful clips in the six episodes of Make 'Em Laugh that it's like a comedic version of one of the doo-wop concerts that PBS uses to generate funds--all the hits that you remember, plus a few you may not.
The documentary is rather arbitrarily divided into six episodes that at times don't even follow their original intent, or alternatively skew things to the young, hip crowd so that older purists may be wincing at times. Therefore in the episode on gadflies, called "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," instead of starting with the logical choice (as in the guy who said that line), W.C. Fields, we instead get a penetrating analysis of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Cue the Danny Thomas spit take. The other five episodes include "Would Ya Hit a Guy With Glasses?," which attempts to look at the phenomenon of the nerdy comic (think Woody Allen, although they at least make a cogent case for such earlier masters as Harold Lloyd). "Honey, I'm Home" looks at the American sitcom and features some great vintage clips of such early heartwarmers as The Goldbergs, but again caters to Gen X-ers and beyond by positing that Seinfeld was the greatest comedy series ever. Since Seinfeld doesn't exactly fit into the mold of "Honey, I'm home" typical "family" sitcoms, I had to wonder then why such at least competent and (in my mind anyway) superior fare like Cheers and its spin-off Frasier don't even rate a mention.
Other episodes include "Slip on a Banana Peel," an ap-peel-ing (sorry) look at physical comedy and pratfalls, "When I'm Bad, I'm Better," focusing on such groundbreakers as Mae West, and "Sock It to Me?," an examination of parody and satire that finally steps outside the realm of broadcast material to include such great examples as Mad Magazine (including a perhaps unintentionally funny segment on Irving Berlin's abortive attempt to sue the daylights out of EC for daring to parody "Blue Skies" as "Blue Cross").
Make 'Em Laugh fares best when it delivers lesser seen material, as in one of the first female comics, June Carroll, who is seen in what appears to be an early 50s vignette, as well as in contemporary interview segments. Some of the segments from late 50s and early 60s variety shows (remember them?) are delicious, though few of them are labeled and it would have been fun to know for sure from where the clips originated. Other rare footage includes such unusual acts as Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman performing live in all their black and white glory.
The series does hit its stride about three or four episodes in, when finally we get some incisive commentary from such current practicioners as Chris Rock, who makes a compelling case that all comics simply feel like they're outsiders and their acts are a way to inveigle their way into the "in crowd." If you're expecting Billy Crystal as your guide, he's really only around for brief introductory segments (not all of them as funny as the fake pledge drive mentioned above). Amy Sedaris is your real host, albeit as narrator.
Something akin to the peculiar, patchwork groupings of subject matter and clips is also found in the equally inconsistent visual presentation. The bulk of the show is in an enhanced 1.78:1 image, with archival footage matted to fill that aspect ratio. And yet occasionally we get that same archival footage in 1.33:1 full frame ratio. It's especially weird when you get things like two segments featuring Jackie Gleason, separated by a brief contemporary commentary, in differing aspect ratios. This may not be as much of a bugaboo to some viewers as it is to me, but I always prefer original aspect ratios--when that means widescreen, so be it, but there needs to be consistency with historical footage that was not meant to be seen that way. You'll notice several missing heads of hair and/or hats due to this peculiar choice.
Make 'Em Laugh is ultimately worth viewing for its abundance of great clips. You're going to get to classics like excerpts from Carol Burnett's "Went With the Wind" classic, as well as probably long-forgotten things like Burnett's parody of "From Here to Eternity" with Durwood Kirby on the old Gary Moore Show (a parody that utilizes exactly the same gag as a Sid Caesar Show parody of the same film from a decade earlier, interestingly enough). If the commentary never rises to the level of the clips themselves, perhaps that's fitting. Humor is something that loses something visceral when it's over-analyzed. It's better sometimes to just sit back and laugh.