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Published on January 14th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson

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Review: Make 'Em Laugh, episodes 1 & 2

I had cautiously high hopes for the first two episodes of Make ‘Em Laugh, which premiered tonight on PBS (curiously, in widescreen on one of my two PBS stations). The names attached to appear were impressive, but I know better than to trust the precious, delicate perception of comedy to a bunch of documentarians. Too many people do it wrong.

Episode one centred on “Nerds, Jerks, and Oddballs”, and got off to a questionable start with a weird faux-historical view of comedy, in the hands of “host” Billy Crystal. (Quotations necessary because he only appears briefly at the start of each episode, with the narration done by the fabulous Amy Sedaris.)

But within the first seven minutes, we were treated to a wonderful profile of Harold Lloyd, complete with an interview clip featuring Bill Irwin. That’s when I knew I could relax. If they know enough to interview Bill Irwin, everything’s gonna be just fine.

Topics bounced quickly from the works of Judd Apatow, to profiles of Jonathan Winters, Steve Martin, Bob Hope, Cheech & Chong, Phyllis Diller, Andy Kaufman, et al. There was very little time devoted to pointless transitions, creating vignettes of whichever time in American history we’re going to be watching comedy from. Every second used in the finished product seems like it was considered precious.

Same goes for the interview subjects. They used what they needed, nothing more. In the first hour, we saw Robert Klein, Richard Lewis, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, Conan O’Brien, George Carlin, Dick Smothers…. Each of them barely on screen long enough for us to realize they were there (or in the case of Hugh Hefner, wonder why they were there). Yes, I want more. Thankfully, extended interviews are on the dvds, which you can buy from PBS or Amazon or any of the regular places.

The second hour, which was to focus on the family sitcom, didn’t get me quite as excited. I think we’ve all seen enough episodes of Biography and E! True Hollywood Story to find many surprises in the profiles of The Simpsons, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All In the Family, The Cosby Show, or Roseanne. Were they well-covered? Sure. But did I learn much about comedy as an artform from these profiles? Nah.

By the end, a few non-family sitcoms made their way in there. The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Seinfeld? Yes, it’s hard not to include them in any discussion about sitcoms. But if you include them, where’s Friends? Where’s Cheers? I realize it’s a slippery slope, and nobody can cover the history of all sitcoms within an hour. Perhaps different categorization was in order.

I can’t see myself watching the dvds over and over again. My complaints, though, are minor. The fact that I didn’t cringe once? I’ll consider this a raging success.

I’m very much looking forward to next week’s episodes, one focusing on slapstick (more Bill Irwin please!?!) and the other on satire. Both subjects are often handled poorly, but this time I think they’re in good hands.

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.



8 Responses to Review: Make 'Em Laugh, episodes 1 & 2

  1. Chica says:

    I had a crush on Harold Lloyd when I was younger. If you’re interested in silent comedy, then I recommend Paul Merton’s Silent Comedy series and book for BBC4.

  2. I saw part of Merton’s thing a while ago, I think on YouTube? Didn’t see the whole thing though, so I’ll definitely check it out!

    (I had a crush on Buster Keaton.)

  3. David Kendall says:

    I hope and pray Groucho’ll be in there somewhere …

  4. Pingback: Review: Make ‘Em Laugh, episodes 3 & 4 « from the Back of the Room

  5. Steve Kassel says:

    But did they have to throw in the usual PBS sociobabble?Was Lenny Bruce really busted to silence his “Ideas”-or was it mainly the dirty words?Was Bilko really canceled because It offended the 50s “culture of conformity”, or did some accountant figure out that they’d make more money syndicating repeats than by producing new episodes(CBS’ explanation).Was W.C. Fields a specific target of the Breen office or an incidental one?(His best starring vehicles were all made after the code crackdown).PBS probably wouldn’t show it unless they threw some liberal victimization in!

  6. @ Steve – I didn’t notice any of what you’ve mentioned, and I’m usually the first to pick up on the “cancelled due to dangerousness” bullshit. They did say that Fields completely ignored the Production Code, so they didn’t exactly make him out to be a victim. And I think the reason they gave for Sgt Bilko being canned was that it was up against Lawrence Welk and lost viewership (I may be confusing that with another show, I would have to rewatch).

    I guess it’s safe to assume you don’t own a PBS tote bag?

  7. Steve Kassel says:

    It was Sid Caesar who suffered in the ratings against Welk , but you’re probably still right-like Caesar, Bilko probably had more of an urban appeal, and lost out to the kinds of shows that rural audiences liked once they got TVs. But if you didn’t notice this stuff, a lot of people probably didn’t, so I should forget about It. I’m glad I’m not alone though, in picking that up in general.

  8. @ Steve – drat, I knew I got that wrong! Thanks for setting me straight. =)

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