Because we could all use a good laugh ...
REASON TO WATCH: Nearly all-encompassing portrait of the funny business.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Better to ask, what is this not about? Comedy, friends, comedy — in all its glorious silliness, though only the best-known figures are covered here. (Billy Crystal hosts and Amy Sedaris narrates.)
Each hour is topical — “Nerds, Jerks and Oddballs” (think Andy Kaufman) leads off this week, followed by family comedy (Bill Cosby, Lucille Ball). Next week covers slapstick (Marx Bros., Laurel and Hardy) and political comics (George Carlin, Mort Sahl). Week 3 brings us wise guys (Jack Benny, Chris Rock) and satirists (Johnny Carson, Jon Stewart).
There are lots of interviews — Judd Apatow, James Burrows, Jerry Seinfeld — that are used to illuminate the highlight reels of the greats. Genre definitions in “Make ’Em Laugh” tend to be somewhat arbitrary, in part because some comics cross genres in their own careers.
BOTTOM LINE: The comedy business is a pretty big business (you may have heard) effectively encompassing half — my own wild guess — of all pop culture. Fold in TV comedy dating back to 1949, “Saturday Night Live,” “Laugh-In,” the late-night guys and even children’s TV (”Sesame Street” and Bill Irwin, anyone?), and maybe, just maybe, it’s even bigger. So you have to admire PBS’ ambition. This is a vast subject, probably too vast for a single program, even one six hours long. The strange paradox here is that there’s too much on display and yet there’s not enough.
In an effort to slip in references to just about everyone — or so the illusion would suggest — comics that deserve a richer, deeper exploration (Richard Pryor) have to make room for lesser luminaries. And just as a portrait starts to fill out (Mae West) ... zip! zap! zing! — it’s on to the next person. That said, this can be a hugely enjoyable viewing experience, and that’s probably what ... umm ... viewers want.