DVD Review: “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America”

Written by DVD Reviews

laughI’m a sucker for thoughtful, informative documentaries that focus on how entertainment is shaped and how it shapes the popular culture. Comedy often reflects a country’s mood, with comedians taking aim at those who call the shots, make the rules, and those who oppress other people. Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, a new documentary that looks at 100 years of American comedy, rises to the challenge of pinpointing turning points in American comedy, while still being quite entertaining. Produced by the same creative team behind Broadway: The American Musical, this six-hour film series was recently broadcast on PBS and has been released on a three-DVD set by Rhino Entertainment.

Make ‘Em Laugh is broken down into six one-hour segments: “Nerds, Jerks and Oddballs,” “Breadwinners and Homemakers,” “The Knockabouts,” “The Groundbreakers,” “The Wiseguys” and “Satire and Parody.” There is a great deal of terrain to cover, obviously, so much so that you may feel that some of the all time greats were omitted. Personally, I could only think of one or two important comedians who were worthy of mention but failed to make it into Make ‘Em Laugh. Howard Stern was the first who came to mind. While his brand of humor is not for everyone, what he accomplished on his radio show and the popularity he achieved was an important part of comedy in the 90’s (when he reached his peak of syndicated popularity). I was glad to see Mad Magazine recognized for its lasting influence, but was surprised that there was any time spent on National Lampoon, the magazine whose radio shows and live productions would act as a blueprint for Saturday Night Live. And it was a bit strange to watch so much praise lavished on the Mary Tyler Moore Show without one interview with the living legend. Still, this is nitpicking when something as outstanding as Make ‘Em Laugh comes around.

The series hits many of the big names in comedy from the past 100 years. Names like Chaplin, the Marx brothers, Phil Silvers, Jack Benny, Cosby, Carson, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx and Seinfeld are pretty well known by the average person. What the series also does is dig up names that are not as well known and shine a well deserved light on these people and the influence they had. Groundbreakers like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Moms Mabley, Mort Sahl, and Gertrude Berg (whose television show, The Goldbergs is considered the first TV sitcom) are all given considerable screen time. Additionally, credit is given to comedians like Cheech and Chong, who captured the youth movement and influenced so many of today’s Latino humorists, and Paul Lynde, one of the first (albeit not openly, but everyone knew) gay comedians.

Each hour is introduced by Billy Crystal and narrated by Amy Sedaris. Her pleasant voice guides us from hilarious clips to appreciative and informative interviews. When watching Make ‘Em Laugh, you should note that the filmmakers captured some of the last interviews with important figures Dick Martin (of Laugh In) and George Carlin. As extras, the DVD set contains interview outtakes and favorite jokes from the comedians who were interviewed. Make ‘Em Laugh is a great way to spend and evening, giggling, smiling and learning about the art of comedy and its roots in American culture. As a bonus, you won’t have pledge drive interruptions while watching the DVD’s.

Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (Rhino) is available at Amazon.