America’s Weapons of Wit: Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, (Rhino) reviewed by Zoe Zenowich
From groundbreakers Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and HaroldLloyd and convention-shattering Mae West, Moms Mabley and Lucille Ballto anti-establishment jesters Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce and JonStewart, American comedians have a rich history of informing andentertaining, upsetting the order, drawing attention to hypocrisy anddelivering influential commentary on political-thought and social life.Recently released on DVD, the PBS documentary series, Make ‘Em Laugh:The Funny Business of America, celebrates the twentieth-century pioneersof American comedy.
Written and directed by Michael Kantor, hosted by Billy Crystaland narrated by Amy Sedaris, the program is organized into six parts,each with an occasionally awkward, but thankfully short, introductoryroutine by Billy Crystal, meant to highlight the theme of the show tocome. An ambitious project, the short history of around a dozendifferent comedians is piled into each episode which exemplifies adifferent genre, character trait, or recurring theme present throughoutthe funny business of America; the oddballs (from Harold Lloyd andWoody Allen to Robin Williams), the trailblazers (from Abbott andCostello to Bill Maher), the wise guys (from W.C. Fields to LarryDavid), domestic comedy (from The Goldbergs to Seinfeld and TheSimpsons), satire and parody (from Will Rogers to The Colbert Report)and slapstick (from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey).
Make ‘Em Laugh features over six hours of funny clips from oldtelevision sitcoms and stand-up acts, (including the The Goldbergs, TheMarx Brothers and Woody Allen), along with interviews with culturalhistorians and comedians (from Sid Caesar and Johnathan Winters to JerrySeinfeld and Chris Rock). Incorporating rare footage, such as Mort Sahland Steve Allen on a televised debate about comedy and censorship, thedocumentary is an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the history ofAmerican comedy. Those with more viewing experience, may be disappointedthat the program barely mentions the influence of radio comedy, andfails to so much as make a nod in the direction of comedians such asHarry Langdon or Bill Hicks. Episode fours kick-starts with a Family Guymusical score poking fun at the FCC, before a brilliant interview withcreator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening who recounts how “Bart Simpsonis Eddie Haskell’s son.” Conspicuously lacking, however, is even theslightest reference to Mickey Mouse, Looney Tones or one of the mostinfluential and controversial television series currently being aired,the Peabody award-winning, equal opportunity offender, South Park.