"I'll admit right up front, I am a sucker for this stuff. I'll try to write an objective review here, but I have been absolutely loving watching these DVDs over the past few days, so it may be tough.
Focused on comedians known for their television and movies appearances, this is a 2009 PBS documentary on American comedy. Introduced by Billy Crystal, the six 53-minute episodes cover a century of men and women who, as Crystal once said, "make funny with the ha-ha." Each show progresses through a series of well-edited film clips of particular stars, which are mixed with appreciative, often enlightening, interviews -- more than 100 in all -- from comedians, producers, writers and historians, everyone from Mort Sahl and Sid Caesar to Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell.
Watching it is sorta like watching the typical PBS program, where you feel so seriously educated you should be stroking your beard. But most is, for me at least, like watching your own mind flashback through all the best moments from the television shows and old movies you watched growing up. What a treat!
From an intellectual standpoint, what I liked best about this series is how well it explores comedy in the first half of the 20th century. For example, the show on satire spends quite a few minutes on Will Rogers, and watching it I really came to appreciate how entertaining he really was, in a way I never had before. Same for Sid Caesar and Tom Lehrer (a performer I had barely heard of), Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and many others.
As a PBS show, this one is, in its own way, every bit as engrossing as a Ken Burns production. Not as long, not as serious, probably not as good, but often just as interesting.
There's certainly as much depth. In the show "When I'm Bad, I'm Better" there's a great segment on Moms Mabley. In the show on physical comedy, I personally loved the short segment on Keaton's Sherlock Jr. In my work, I have learned about this film because it's the basis for the live host in the Walt Disney World attraction The Great Movie Ride. It was a delight just to see someone else mention it!
Each disc has a set of extras: a collection of 15 or so interview segments that didn't make it into the documentary itself. These aren't very long, just 90 or so, but there is a Play All button, which turns each set into a nice little feature that runs about 20 minutes. On disc two, for example, you get a couple of minutes of noted producer and manager Bernie Brillstein discussing the brilliance of the 1950s Martin and Lewis shows at New York City's Copacabana nightclub, followed by two minutes of Carol Burnett recalling a conversation with Lucille Ball about Desi Arnaz (quoting Ball recalling a time when after she asserted herself "that's when the put the `s' on my last name"), then George Carlin talking about his mom's sense of language...these go on and on, and are both interesting and easy to watch, especially while you're cooking, doing chores, or, like me now, typing on a laptop.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER On the downside, there are some obvious gaps. Though Jim Carrey and even Jaleel "Urkel" White get lots of screen time, nowhere in the six shows is there even a mention of Rodney Dangerfield, David Letterman, Joe E. Lewis or Henny Youngman, or for that matter silent-film stars Charley Chase or Harry Langdon. Also, Red Skelton barely -- and I mean BARELY -- appears! In fairness, however, I should point out that what is here is well edited. To include other comedians without reducing the watchability of the series would have meant another episode or two, something that I bet just wasn't realistic.
EPISODE LIST Here's a brief description of each episode:
WOULD YA HIT A GUY WITH GLASSES? NERDS, JERKS & ODDBALLS The misfit -- including silent film legend Harold Lloyd, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, Cheech & Chong, Woody Allen and Steve Martin.
HONEY I'M HOME! BREADWINNERS AND HOMEMAKERS Focused on sitcoms, this episode starts with George Burns and Gracie Allen, the married couple who moved their popular radio program to television, then continues with clips from The Goldbergs, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Seinfeld and The Simpsons.
SLIP ON A BANANA PEEL: THE KNOCKABOUTS Physical comedy, with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Martin and Lewis, Lucille Ball and Jim Carrey.
WHEN I'M BAD, I'M BETTER: THE GROUNDBREAKERS Not just Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, but also Mae West, Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor.
NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK: THE WISEGUYS W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, Joan Rivers, Paul Lynde, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Larry David.
SOCK IT TO ME? SATIRE AND PARODY For me, this show is the best of them all. It includes clips and discussions of Will Rogers, Abbot and Costello, Sid Caesar, Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks, Laugh In, Saturday Night Live, even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
The series is narrated by Amy Sedaris. Perhaps best known as the star of the 1990s Comedy Central series Strangers With Candy or most recently as the principal in Nickeodeon's Gym Teacher: The Movie, she plays it straight here. Fans of those shows will hardly recognize her.
Though PBS purists may not like the relative fast pace of the show, its briskness makes it hard to turn away from. My Amazon reviews usually take about 30 minutes to write. This one has taken three days! I try to type, but keep getting distracted!
By the way, this documentary has a companion book, Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America."
What Great Quality
C. Scheller | Louisiana | 02/03/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I'll admit I was kind of angry that this wasn't on Blu-Ray after watching it on TV in HD. BUT after ordering it, it still looks really great on regular DVD. I was very surprised by the quality of clips they managed to get. Are they missing comedians? Of course...that's quite inevitable, but they do an excellent job of categorizing the comedians and not making it linear, which could have resulted in the end product being kind of boring.
I'm pursuing my Masters in Film Studies and it's great to have a resource like this at hand for the low price of 25$ (It's since gone up, I notice. But still well worth the money.)
It comes in a solid box set that folds out to house three discs. Really high quality product for the price.
It also has a companion book called Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America which has actually lowered in price, and looks like it would be a great coffee table book."
MORE THAN THE PBS TELEVISION SERIES
jamco2000 | 01/16/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 3 disc set contains an hour more that the PBS series which is currently being shown this week 12 January 2009. If you haven't seen it yet catch it ibn re-runs. With six hours of everything on black and white TV from Danny Kaye to Ernie Kovacs you'll want to treasure this for keeps. Broken into hour-long segments and introduced by Billy Crystal, the clips flow straight-on. Interviews with contemporary writer's and actors dissolve into the routines of past comedians like Larry David and W.C. Fields, . Extras include: Carlin on word power; Dick Gregory's advice to Richard Pryor; Jonathan Winters dumbstruck by Robin Williams."
If you love comedy, you'll love this!
Dotty C. | Westchester County, NY | 03/14/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Want to laugh? Don't miss this collection. What a historical overview! It may not be comprehensive enough for some, but it covers so much that I don't mind that a few of my favorite comedians are overlooked. This is a keepsake we will share with our grandchildren."
Its funny Goddamit
N. Myhre | 03/07/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Oy,this is some funny schtick,wheres Milton when you need him,but seriously folks this stuff is funnyyyyyyyyyyy.Billy should get an Oscar for this, well at least an emmy or maybe a cleo.Keep up the good vork."