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Published on January 21st, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson

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Review: Make ‘Em Laugh, episodes 3 & 4

PBS’s six-part series Make ‘Em Laugh continued tonight with parts 3 & 4 (click here for my thoughts of 1 & 2).

First up? Slapstick, which host Billy Crystal says is “the oldest and most universal form of comedy that we have”.

I have a huge soft spot for physical comedy. I adore it, partly for the simplicity and purity of it, and partly because I recognize how hard it is. It’s not respected as much as it should be. (I’ll lament this further another time, I promise.)

I was saddened that that the hour was bookended with grainy YouTube videos of people falling and getting hit in the nuts, commented on by all the “cultural historian” interviewees. Is this the best representation of modern physical comedy? Is this really all we have left?

I left this worry behind once Bill Irwin appeared on screen, including a quick clip of his best known work, Regard of Flight. It’s one of my life’s great frustrations that I’ve yet to see Irwin in the flesh.

“It’s a deeper, different kind of laugh when somebody falls down, or you’re laughing at something physical,” he says.

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The balance of the show contained wonderfully constructed (albeit somewhat predictable) profiles of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy (this one made me want to watch every single one of their films immediately), Harpo Marx, the Three Stooges, Lucille Ball (including a masterful scene with Red Skelton), Jerry Lewis, and Jim Carrey.

Dick Van Dyke said he’s glad to see the kinds of things Carrey is doing, “because they seem to be going away, disappearing.”

Which perhaps is why we’re stuck with American’s Funniest Videos as the pinnacle of modern slapstick.

Part 4 was about the “groundbreakers” of comedy, kicking off with the FCC song from the Family Guy.

I have to admit, I was heavily schooled in this episode. I knew a bit about Mae West, Moms Mably, and Mort Sahl. But not this much, and not in the way it was framed.

Lenny Bruce’s story took up a significant portion of the hour, and so it should have. The filmmakers did a great job of outlining his story in the timeframe they had, and I wasn’t bored for even a second of it. Unlike the previous profiles, I knew all this stuff about Lenny Bruce. But in the context they gave, and with others recalling it, I felt like I was learning it all over again.

“What he left for us was a standard, which is worth aiming for,” said George Carlin.

The Smothers Brothers were profiled next, who I think are often overlooked by us young ‘uns (until I was a teenager I knew them only as the guys in the Shreddies commercials). This was another great segment, hammering home what they went through with censorship.

Richard Pryor’s segment seemed all too short, as did Carlin’s (and you can’t use all 7 words on PBS, evidently). I did find it odd that Carlin, interviewed throughout this series, was never acknowledged as having passed away since filming.

Just a few minutes left in the show, and we’re only missing one big name. Next face I see is going to be Bill Hicks, right? Wait, that’s not…. Carlos Mencia? Really? Yeah, that’s not even close, guys.

Short of that, I think we got another couple of fantastic episodes.

Next week the series wraps up with “The Wiseguys” and “Satire and Parody”. I think I’ll actually be sad when this is over.

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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.



2 Responses to Review: Make ‘Em Laugh, episodes 3 & 4

  1. Becca says:

    I especially thought the part about Lucille Ball was amazing, especially how she learned as much as she could about the craft (and taking two hours to learn how to mime eating food from Red Skeleton is just impressive).

    And I have to agree, the end of the “Groundbreakers” episode was a bit weird and didn’t felt like it fit. I know they were trying to catch everybody up to modern day, and I could understand Chris Rock and Bill Maher (a little bit, at least), but Carlos Mencia? Didn’t make sense to me either.

  2. @ Becca – yes, the Lucy part was amazing! I think they showed a part of her work ethic that normally gets put on the back burner in favor of all the relationship drama between her and Ricky.

    Yeah, they seem to like the start and end these things with something modern. But I think they could have done a much better job with the ending. Oh well, small complaint!

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