Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of Comedy -- TV Review

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
It's tough to imagine a misfire on a six-hour comedy history documentary hosted by Billy Crystal, and "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of Comedy" assuredly isn't. It's a painstaking, comprehensive, wise and wildly entertaining journey chronicling more than 100 years of American humor rich with vintage clips and insightful interviews with dozens of the all-time greats.

This is the kind of stuff that PBS simply does better than everyone else, and that's surely the case with this project co-produced by WNET/Thirteen. More than a mere trip down memory lane, it's a primer assessing the nation's social fabric through its humor, tracking comedy's role in shaping and reflecting the changing mores and standards of everyday life -- from gender issues to race relations to politics.

"Make 'Em Laugh" is broken into a half-dozen distinct subject hours The first installment, "Nerds, Jerks & Oddballs," peers at the rise of nerd humor going back to the bespectacled Harold Lloyd (seen in a rare 1962 interview) and tracing the zany pioneers from Phyllis Diller and Jonathan Winters to Andy Kaufman, Woody Allen, Robin Williams and Steve Martin. There's some terrific footage of Allen doing stand-up from the early 1960s, becoming the first horn-rimmed intellectual to become a leading man.

Hour 2, "Breadwinners and Homemakers," peers at the rise of TV comedy in the home and the workplace via the likes of "I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Roseanne," "All in the Family" and "Seinfeld."

Subsequent hours explore "The Knockabouts" (slapstick masters from Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers through Jim Carrey), "The Groundbreakers" (Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin), "The Wiseguys" (W.C. Fields, Phil Silvers, Paul Lynde) and "Satire and Parody" (from Will Rogers through "Saturday Night Live" and Stephen Colbert).

Despite its length, the series hardly drags and in fact feels downright breezy in melding performance, biography and history. It's well worth firing up the DVR for.

Airdate: 8-10 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 14 (KCET Los Angeles)
Production: Thirteen/WNET and Ghost Light Films
Host: Billy Crystal
Executive producers: David Horn, Tina Fletcher, David Jackson, Ryan Minchon, John Beug
Supervising producer: Bill O'Donnell
Producers: Michael Kantor, Sally Rosenthal
Directors of photography: Ulli Bonnekamp, Mead Hunter, Allan Palmer
Editors: Pam Arnold, Ed Barteski, Kris Liem, Jed Parker
Music: Peter Millrose, Lauremnce O'Keefe, Stephen Ulrich
Narrator: Amy Sedaris