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.
Despite its shortcomings, what Make ‘Em Laugh lacks in detail, itmakes up for in message. Every one of the six episodes pays ode to thehistorical, cultural and political importance of comedy and politicalsatire; Lenny Bruce’s testing the barrier of speech and artisticfreedom during his numerous trials for obscenity, the SmothersBrothers’ censorship battles with CBS and the 1964 Supreme Court victoryfor MAD magazine, which established the rights of comedians to parodypopular songs. George Carlin says in episode six, “I like doing whatmakes people feel uneasy. I find out where they draw the line,deliberately cross it, take them with me, and make them happy they camealong.”
Comedy’s importance lays in its ability to mock institutions,social manners and cultural norms, while making the audience laugh atthe same time. As television producer and director George Schlatter saysin episode four, “We must nurture these people, protect and shieldthem, because what they say is valuable. You hear things presented toyou through humor that you might never hear otherwise.” And value themwe should, throughout history it is often comedians who are theforerunners in battles against censorship, hypocrisy and establishedauthority.
Zoe Zenowich is a student at Brooklyn College. You can read more aboutthe DVD here.
Name: Candy Delacourte
Last week, the First Lady visited a soup kitchen that sits seven blocksfrom the White House and helped serve food. Someone in the soup linephotographed Ms. Obama with a cell phone camera, and conservatives wentnuts, writing in that anyone who can afford a cell phone should not geta free meal. Apparently, free meals should be reserved for those whohave absolutely nothing to their name.
Such comments display a profound misunderstanding of being down and out,especially these days. Not everyone in a soup line is a career homelessperson. Many had jobs until recently, and many had homes until recently.Many are hoping for a call, a call from a potential employer, or a callfrom a friend offering a place to stay, or a call from a family memberoffering an option to start a new start somewhere else. If there is anytool a homeless person needs, it’s a cell phone and a way to be reached, away to believe that the next incoming call might bring an end to thisnightmare.
But of course, to conservatives, the homeless are not human, but rather,piteous lesser beings who should wear there shame at every opportunity.
Name: Norman Gravely
Hometown: Woodbridge, Va
Did you notice Howard Kurtz’s front page article in theWashington Post?
He stated that Rush Limbaugh’s ratings had nearly doubled. How did heknow? Apparently Talkers magazine related to Kurtz anecdotal infothat was hardly verifiable. Then the Post editorial staff says theWhite house is talking about Rush too much, even though they the Postrun hearsay on their front page. Ugh!
Name: Sandip Silverman
Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa
I want to personally thank you for only posting your blog once everyweek or two. I’ve been reading your stuff for years now when you wereat Media Matters and before and your column once a day or even two orthree times a week was way too depressing and too much for any saneperson to handle. So, thanks for cutting back.
Eric replies: Jerry?
Name: Charles Hinton
Hometown: Satellite Beach, FL
Greetings Eric–I am interested if you have any comments on RetiredAmbassador Freeman who made these comments as he withdrew fromconsideration of the post of National Intelligence Council
The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails showconclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent anyview other than its own from being aired, still less to factor inAmerican understanding of trends and events in the Middle East. Thetactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor andindecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and ourgovernment other than those that it favors.
Eric replies: I think I’ll do a column for “Moment” on this.
Name: Michael Kelly
Hometown: Wichita, KS
I have enjoyed several of Prof. Polenberg’s ‘Key to the Highway’presentations, but he should check the archives and make surethey all work.
I was particularly intrigued by one titled ‘War and Blues’ , but thesupposed download link gave me a 612-byte file that is not an mp3.
Here’s the broken link: http://slopemedia.org/podpress_trac/web/343/0/463.mp3