The recipe for a documentary on the history of 20th-century American humor is simple. Begin with such Jewish pioneers as the Marx Brothers, Gertrude Berg and Lenny Bruce. Mix in the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis and Jon Stewart. Add a dollop of Billy Crystal as the host. Then sprinkle in a few non-Jewish greats: Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Richard Pryor.
That’s what PBS does in its six-part series, “Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America,” which airs this month in three two-hour episodes on successive Wednesday nights in January (check local listings). The results have been good. The series is both entertaining and comprehensive, highlighting comedians, both famous and forgotten, from a variety of eras. If the program had explored its subjects’ backgrounds with more depth, it could have been even better.
Organized into such themes as “Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts,” which focuses on physical comedy, and “Sock It to Me? Satire and Parody,” the episodes feature brief vignettes of the performers. The comedians get short biographies, which are organized chronologically within each episode. (A book that was released to accompany the series is organized similarly.)
Many of the talking heads featured in the series are the comedians themselves, paying homage to their heroes. “It was an epiphany for me,” says Joan Rivers about the 1950s-’60s-era boundary-breaking Bruce. “He spoke the unspeakable.” Clips of routines are shown throughout; the best of these are those long enough to get a sense of the performer. One of the funniest clips is Allan Sherman singing his hilarious parody of American materialism and conformity, “Harvey and Sheila,” to the tune of “Hava Nagila.”
The series teaches us about comics who may be familiar to a particular generation in name or reputation only. For the younger generation, that could be the legendary Bruce, who destroyed so many comedic boundaries before he himself was destroyed by a combination of repressive laws (he was arrested repeatedly on obscenity charges for his performances) and by his own demons (he died of a drug overdose). For the older generation, Larry David, creator of the TV programs “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” might fit the bill. Who knew he did stand-up?
There are also profiles of forgotten performers. Even those who followed comedy during the height of the Cold War might have forgotten how Mort Sahl provided trenchant, funny commentary before his career was ruined because of his obsession with John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
There’s no way “Make ’Em Laugh” could have avoided highlighting the many Jews who have helped to define what is funny in, and about, America. As Chris Rock, the contemporary African-American comic, says in one of the episodes: “If you’re a comedian, you’re Jewish. It’s like, to be a comedian is to be raised by Jews.”
While the Jewishness of many comics is mentioned, it is not pursued. Viewers learn that Lewis got his start in the Borscht Belt, but the womb of entertainment that was the Catskill Mountains gets no more airtime. (To be fair, the companion book, written by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor, devotes some text to the Catskills.)
Larry Gelbart, who worked with Sid Caesar and later was one of the creators of the TV show “MAS*H”, deals humorously with the Jewish issue. “Someone once asked how come so many of the writers on ‘Caesar’s Hour’ were young Jews, and I said, ‘Because so many of our parents were mostly old Jews.’”
Funny, but unsatisfying.
This might seem like a minor quibble, but a series like this needs narrative threads. “Make ’Em Laugh” seems to have only one, beyond the obvious point that comedy is anti-authority and anti-establishment: Comedians have challenged laws (Bruce, George Carlin) and attitudes about race and gender (Pryor and just about every successful female comic).
Using religion and ethnicity might have helped flesh out why Carl Reiner didn’t make the lead character of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” a Jew, even though the show was based on Reiner’s experience writing for Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” Was this his choice, or the network’s? And when Jack Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky, made being cheap a central part of his onstage persona, how self-conscious was he of targeting an antisemitic canard, even though most viewers didn’t think of him as Jewish?
More than a superficial nod toward ethnicity might also have strengthened the segments on some of the non-Jewish comedians, such as Cheech & Chong, the Mexican/Chinese pot-smoking duo popular in the 1970s and ’80s, and the female African-American comic Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who performed as a matronly old lady so that audiences would be more receptive to her barbs. It also might have challenged the series to say something about why more gay and lesbian comedians have been unable to enter the mainstream. Only Paul Lynde, who remained in the closet publicly throughout his life, gets a mention. (Ellen DeGeneres might have been a better choice.)
Playing these cards might not have made “Make ’Em Laugh” funnier, but it would have deepened our understanding of the funny men and women the series honors.
Peter Ephross’s articles and reviews have appeared in The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly and Antiques & Collecting Magazine, among other publications.