Somewhere on my would-have-been-nice-if-I’d-had-time list this week: Review Make ‘Em Laugh on PBS for Tuned In. That fell by the wayside, along many other matters work- and personal-hygiene-related, but the first installment aired last night on public television stations.
The premise is a sterling example of one of those solid, inoffensive pledge-drive programming staples: The History of Something Everybody Agrees On. (World War Two was awful! Laughter is good!) And a history of comedy in America allows for guaranteed smiles while appealing to the ever-important nostalgia factor among PBS donors. But if Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America was given a fairly low bar, I can at least say, based on the couple hours I’ve watched thus far, that it cleared it with room to spare.
It’s said that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog; it can be done, but the frog dies in the process. Not necessarily so, however, when you have gifted comics putting their fingers on the essence of other comics’ work. (My colleague and comedy expert Richard Zoglin also contributed interviews.) Conan O’Brien and Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, talking about how the secret to Andy Kaufman’s genius was not caring what his audience thought was funny, an approahc that reached its apex in his cartoonishly chauvinist performance-art wrestling bouts against women. “An incredible waste of everyone’s time,” O’Brien says. “And I think that was part of what made it so funny.”
But again: getting comics to be insightful about Andy Kaufman is easy. I knew that Make ‘Em Laugh had really accomplished something when I heard Jaleel White, talking about playing Steve Urkel, get at the heart of why nerds are such appealing characters: “Everyone can relate to liking something that’s not popular, and nerds openly like what they like. They line up for Star Wars, they’ll dress up in costume. That’s not popular; that’s not going to get you chicks. Because they’re so passionate, that’s what makes them fun characters to observe.”
Make ‘Em Laugh may have gotten more attention had PBS not debuted it against the second night of American Idol, but that’s all part of PBS’s idealistic but maddening tradition of programming as if the rest of television did not exist. Did anyone catch it?