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Published on January 29th, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson

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Review: Make 'Em Laugh, episodes 5 & 6

Tonight’s finale of the PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh started off with the simple category of “wiseguys”. I’m still not sold on the way these episodes are categorized, but happy that this episode kicked off with Don Rickles, including some great clips of him on Carson.

“When I host awards shows I’m just doing Rickles,” said Chris Rock

We got a surprisingly long Larry David profile, complete with Curb clips and great stories about his standup from Richard Lewis and Alan Zweibel.

As was the case last week, I got schooled, this time in the work of W.C. Fields. I knew little about him, including that the Hollywood Production Code (which was brought up in the profile of Mae West a few episodes back) tried to censor him, but he chose to break the rules.

We got a good character sketch of Jack Benny, including thoughts on the “your money or your life” joke. “That joke took 20 years to write,” said Richard Lewis.

The balance of the show contained profiles of Groucho Marx, Phil Silvers, Paul Lynde, Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock. There wasn’t much about this episode that truly grabbed me, at least not in a positive way.

Within the Joan Rivers segment, the filmmakers inserted a quote from Joy Behar bemoaning how audiences aren’t open to female standups. “They’re much more used to seeing a man take control…. It’s difficult for women to get over that hump,” she says. I swear she said the exact same thing in Wisecracks, the now-unwatchable 1991 documentary about the plight of women in comedy. It may have still had truth to it on the tail end of the 80s, but I firmly believe this is an outdated notion. I could have done without it.

The final episode focused on satire and parody, appropriately opening with Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech, followed by a profile of Will Rogers. (I smiled to myself, because I’m told Colbert’s writing staff was thoroughly amused by an old review comparing Colbert to Rogers).

This show was a pretty mixed bag of “parody”, “satire”, and “didn’t fit anywhere else”. The standard format of profile-after-profile ensued, with Abbott and Costello, Sid Caesar, Tom Lehrer, Mad Magazine (I learned that the existing song parody laws exist because of Mad), Alan Sherman, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett Show, Laugh-In (people can tell me it was relevant all they want, but I’ll never believe it), and Saturday Night Live.

They also tossed in a segment featuring Billy Crystal’s Oscar song parodies, which one assumes was part of his contract for hosting this series. Those things hold up even worse than Laugh-In. I cringed.

Johnny Carson was thrown into this category (but Letterman was nowhere to be seen in this entire series), followed by In Living Color, and of course the Daily Show – which they handled brilliantly by letting one lame “people get their news from Jon Stewart” quote get by and then just letting a block of clips speak for themselves.

I liked this episode, as varied as it was, but nothing brings the “cultural historians” out of the woodwork like the topic of satire. We got a little too much from these guys, all about the role of the comedian and authority and blah blah. Same old.

But in a nutshell? Make ‘Em Laugh exceeded all my expectations. I even learned a few things, which always impresses me considering how much comedic analysis I’ve consumed over the years. It wasn’t perfect. There were glaring omissions – Bill Hicks excluded from the hour of “groundbreakers”, guys like Chris Farley and Donald O’Connor left out of the “physical comedy” episode, and – maybe because we share a hometown – I found it odd they interviewed David Steinberg throughout the series but never mentioned him in the “satire” episode.

But if this is all I have to complain about, I think we should consider this series an overwhelming success. If you missed it (silly!), pick up the dvd set through your favourite online retailer.

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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.



4 Responses to Review: Make 'Em Laugh, episodes 5 & 6

  1. Becca says:

    Jack Benny never fails to crack me up.

    Thanks for all the reviews! (And now I’m curious if you are going to watch/cover the Mark Twain prize for George Carlin. It’s next week on my PBS station here in Minnesota, are you getting it where you are?)

  2. Yep, same night on my PBS stations! It looks fantastic.

  3. David Kendall says:

    I definitely shall pick it up! (I’m more apt to watch TV now if I can get it on DVD, due to the busy-ness of my life.)

    Surprised that Alan Sherman was in there – I’ve never really considered him a “comedian”, more in the likes of Ray Stevens (silly song performer) or, of course, definitely more like Weird Al Yankovich, a parody artist. Tom Leher could be described in both categories too, but I consider him more of a comedian because I’ve actually heard him do standup riffs as fillers and bridges between his songs, he is much more of a “comedian”. (The line between “comedian” and “silly song artist” is admittedly fine – I’ve often had debates with myself whether a particular artist or piece goes on my “silly songs” CD or my “comedians” CD.)

  4. @ David — damn it, I completely forgot about Weird Al. And so did the filmmakers. That’s just… wrong.

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