Make 'Em Laugh
The Funny Business Of America
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The funniest joke ever told? It's here, along with a century's worth of prat falls, parodies and punch lines. Rhino's "Make 'Em Laugh," a 6-episode 3-DVD set, traces comedy in America from Chaplin to Carlin and beyond. A fast-paced funfest, "Make 'Em Laugh" is the Sistine Chapel of comedy - the more you look at it, the more you notice its intricate beauty. Or as comedy writer Anne Beatts says, "Make 'Em Laugh goes beyond the 'pie in the face' to the 'face behind the pie.'
Billy Crystal hosts the series, and it's painfully obvious from his first routine - a lampoon of Ken Burns' cinematic style - that he could have used some help from Mel Brooks, Neil Simon or Carl Reiner, three of Sid Caesar's writers. Amy Sedaris serves as narrator but she's incidental, never saying anything worth remembering. But don't worry about Billy's jokes not being crystal clear or Amy being less than amiable. It's the clips that count. Thankfully, they're plentiful.
The segment that doubled me over the most was episode three, "Slip On a Banana Peel: The Knockouts." I know, physical comedy is sophomoric. It plays off of someone getting clobbered or embarrassed to the point they need psychiatric help or a suit of armor. But after a humorless day staring into the mechanical glow of my Dell computer, someone falling off a ladder into a fountain is a helluva lot funnier than trying to decode Jon Stewart's political puffery. Sometimes you want an immediate payback without having to fire up too many dormant neurons to figure out what's going on -- and guys like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges were masters at delivering punches as well as punch lines.
Chaplin is rightfully recognized as the foundation of comedy as we know it. As ageless talk show host Joe Franklin, the king of nostalgia notes: "At one time people didn't say 'Let's go to the movies." They said, 'Let's go see Chaplin. Chaplin was the movies.'" Buster Keaton never smiled in his movies, but his audience did, and his death-defying scenes - done without the benefit of a stunt man - such as having a building collapse around him, or falling head first off a water tower, are still worth marveling at. Keaton was the Jackie Chan of his day. He broke nearly bone in his body for the audience's amusement.
Actor Michael McKean ("Spinal Tap") accurately paints a picture of Laurel and Hardy by saying, "Ollie was the dumbest man in the room, and Stan was his stooge. They were two minds without a single thought." Clips of the rotund southern gentleman and the clueless, baffling Brit trying to push a player piano up an endless flight of steps or battling comedic foil James ("DOH!") Finlayson are as fresh and funny as they were 70 years ago. As for The Stooges, few comedy teams were funnier or more destructive on a pure visual level. True, they owed much of their appeal to Joe Henry's sound effects, but they also made "soitinely," "numbskull," and "why you, I oughtta," part of our daily dialogue (okay I grew up with a rough crowd), and they gave a certain redhead who later teamed up with a Cuban bandleader a part in one of their short films.
Rochester: Brace yourself. Your car's been stolen.
Benny: Stolen? When did it happen?
Rochester: Two hours ago.
Benny: Two hours ago! Why didn't you call sooner?
Rochester: I just stopped laughing.
Benny is credited with delivering "the biggest joke of all time," and if other noted comedians, including the exalted Jerry Seinfeld think its funny, then chances are you will too.
Among "The Wise Guys" segment's sharpest swordsmen are Don Rickles, W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers (specifically Groucho), Phil Silvers, Paul Lynde and Redd Foxx. There's a clip of a thinly disguised Jack Benny appearing on Groucho's "You Bet Your Life" game show, where he introduces himself as "Ronald Forsythe." "Funny, it was Roger Forsythe during rehearsal," Groucho quips.
How much of the real W.C. Fields was incorporated into his inebriated imitations is left to the audience, but as many of the interviewees point out, Fields wasn't a happy man in real life. He loved the bottle and hated children, and his on screen battles with both are painfully priceless.
Paul Lynde may be underappreciated today, but he was one of TV's most snide, snickering, scathing, and likeable wits, an unspoken gay man who thrived as "center square" on the game show "The Hollywood Squares":
Peter Marshall: What's the one thing Paul, Dear Abby says you should never do in
Paul Lynde: Point and laugh.
Red Foxx made his name playing a junk dealer on TV, ironically using his real last name, "Sanford." Viewers may not be surprised at how salty and salacious his act was, but among the tidbits that will raise an eyebrow are stories of his close friendship with Malcolm X (they ran and robbed together), the popularity of his potty-mouthed party records, his battles with the I.R.S. and his I-dare-you-to-mess-with-me attitude. Comic Reynaldo Rey, who often performed on the chitlin' circuit with Foxx and Slappy White, provides a chilling portrait of Foxx patiently waiting for White to pay him back the $500 he owed him. Like many funnymen, Foxx was anything but off stage. Foxx carried a two shot derringer with him at all times for "protection." When he finally cornered White, he took a bullet out of the gun and threw it at White's head, saying, "If you don't give me my money, the next one will come at you much faster." Slappy paid up before he got beat down.
"When I'm Bad I'm Better: The Groundbreakers" honors the comedians and the satirists who stuck their necks out to make us laugh and often paid the price by being publicly drawn and quartered. Mae West battled the censorship code of the 30s and eventually was sanitized out of the movies ("I used to be Snow White, but I drifted."). Among the other ribald rebels are Tom and Dick Smothers, whose radical 60s variety show was smothered by CBS, and fellow political satirists Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman, and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. The Mort Sahl I watched growing up was a government conspiracy obsessed nebbish who often spoke over the audience's head; he's more caustic and quicker in his youth. Forty years down stage, Sahl obviously still harbors some resentment toward Lenny Bruce being held up as a political martyr. He feels Bruce was a funny, blue comedian who got swept up in his own headlines and drug addiction, but Richard Beltzer disagrees, saying, "Lenny took it on the chin for all of us." The black and white clips of Bruce in his heyday and during the period where he spent as much time in jail will help you judge which man's perspective is closer to the real Lenny Bruce.
Richard Pryor and George Carlin, two comedians who not only were groundbreakers but also trendsetters, provide the chapter's highlights. Some of Pryor best work is
revisited - including jokes about his heart attack. You'll also get a glimpse of his tense "Saturday Night Live" skit with Chevy Chase, and see him deliver self-aggrandizing jokes about setting himself on fire. Carlin opens his own segment with a joke about Pryor: "I'd like to give you an update on the comedian death sweepstakes...As it stands right now, I lead Richard Pryor in heart attacks two to one...However, Richard leads one to nothing in burning yourself up." Carlin admits he loved crossing the line, and his piece, highlighted by his routine "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," is a reminder of how clever he was at breaking the shoes of convention.
The remaining episodes, "Honey I'm Home: Breadwinners and Homemakers," "Sock it To Me: Satire and Parody" and the opener, "Would You Hit a Guy With Glasses: Nerds, Jerks and Oddballs" are sporadic, but still weigh in with their share of rare clips and guffaws. In addition to profiles of Burns and Allen, Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cosby and Rosanne Barr, the sitcom-focused "Honey I'm Home" is highlighted by segments on two of TV's immortal sitcoms, "I Love Lucy" and "All in the Family." The genius of Jackie Gleason is revealed in the extras by producer/director Garry Marshall, who relates how "The Great One" once pulled off a hilarious scene without having read the script; and although Lucille Ball was looked upon as completely humorless off stage (even by herself), she was viewed as assiduous on camera - she got Red Skelton to teach her mime, and recreated Harpo Marx's famed mirror scene on her show with Marx.
"Would You Hit A Guy With Glasses" skimps a bit on Bob Hope, but offers some very pleasing profiles of other comic jerks and oddballs, including Jonathan Winters, Winter's clone Robin Williams, Woody Allen, Cheech and Chong, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers (pre-cat woman surgery, and prior to when her funny bone was removed). Allen's herky-jerky geek bit was never more than null and dull for me, but fans will be treated to early footage of him spazing his way through several routines on TV. Winters may be a mess mentally in real life, but he's still quick to ad lib, and Jack Parr's assessment of Winters accurately sums up his talent: "If you were to ask me who the funniest twenty five people are, I'd say Jonathan Winters." One of the episodes uncovered gems is seeing Cheech and Chong on "The Dating Game" competing with an All-American square for the affections of singer Helen Reddy.
"Sock It To Me" doesn't quite have the punch of the other episodes, but it does have some knockout moments, including a high-energy Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett (with a clip of her penultimate parody of "Gone With the Wind"), Richard Nixon's appearance on "Laugh In," (which he claimed got him elected), and Jim Carrey carrying "In Living Color."
There are many profiles of comics who deserve more recognition spread over the three discs. Silent film giant Harold Lloyd, who played against his good looks by donning a pair of tortoise shell glasses and portrayed gullible, green college freshmen, is interviewed in the 60s, along with footage that attests to his athleticism; Gertrude Berg (who? star and director of "The Goldbergs"), gets her due as a pioneer of early TV -- she wrote over 10,000 scripts. Jackie "Moms" Mabley's "Grandma" character comes across as more smutty than she did when I was an innocent 10 year-old wishing she'd get off the stage so I could see The Dave Clark Five on "The Ed Sullivan Show": "I've been accused of liking young men...I'm guilty...And I'm gonna get guiltier!"
The name George Burns brings to mind a doddering Macanudo sucking centenarian who puffed out one-liners and got to play God in a movie with John Denver, but not enough people remember his wife and partner, Gracie Allen. Gracie played the endearing ditz to George's gruff curmudgeon, and the clips of the couple display their punch line per second timing as well as Burns' intuitive ability to play the clueless straight man: "To be a straight man you have to have talent, and you have to develop that talent. Then you have marry her like I did."
I'm sure there are a few people who'll take issue with some of the comics that are either in or out. There's no mini-tribute to "Mr. Television," Milton Berle, and where's Shecky Greene? (Just kidding. I just like the name Shecky.) Fred Allen, whose satirical wit was a perfect match for Jack Benny during their comically rigged feuds on radio and TV, is briefly seen but not heard, and I found it ironic that there's a clip of Richard Pryor taken from the "Flip Wilson Show" with the host coming to the stage, but there's no mention of the man who created Geraldine Jones. I get that some folks think Andy Kaufman was hysterical (I just think he hysterical in a mentally defective manner), but the clip showing Jerry Lewis lip synching to a record -- and doing so in a much more laughably creative manner, renders much of Kaufman's act moot. Watching Kaufmann challenge women to wrestle was a worn out bit in the 80s that was as ripe as Bruno Sanmartino's tights, and anyone who's was taken in and amused by his guise as obnoxious lounge singer Tony Clifton deserves to sit through his frustratingly dull segment.
Make 'Em Laugh Some More...The Extras
Each chapter offers extended interviews with the likes of George Carlin, Billy Crystal, Carol Burnett, Rosanne Barr, Garry Marshall and Dick Gregory, who relates how close a young Richard Pryor came to blowing his career because he literally exposed too much of himself on stage. Burnett tells a risqué remembrance of Lucille Ball, who realized she had a lot to learn about producing when she took over Desilu from ex-husband and partner Desi Arnaz. You'll also find out how punk rocker Elvis Costello inspired a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, how a conversation with Bill Cosby moved Jeff Foxworthy, and what Billy Crystal learned from Groucho Marx.
The best part of "Make 'Em Laugh?" It lives up to its name.