Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 2, 2009

Comedy Crisis: Super Bowl Ads, PBS, and “Show Me the Funny”

In these days of alarmist news stories about failed banks, unemployment, high energy prices and a dying planet, it would be very easy not to notice the critical shortage of good comedy in the U.S. the past few years.

But it has not escaped MY ever-watchful eye, friends. Lame Super Bowl ads (though the E-Trade baby still kills me). A president everyone is scared to make fun of, aside from those big ears. (Go ahead! He can take a joke.) The death of the network sitcom. The passing of George Carlin (don’t miss his Mark Twain Award show this Wednesday). Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s onscreen marriage crumbling around them in Revolutionary Road (no wait, that was not meant to be funny, was it?).

Or this: as a teacher, media historian and amateur cultural critic, I waited with bated breath for the recently broadcast WNET/PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh, about the societal role of comic entertainment. Yet for a series so focused on the difficult, important art of comedy, it was amazingly bland and dumbed-down. In other words, it had no teeth. Even though some of the comedy it portrayed had plenty of bite to it, we viewers barely get to see it.

Maybe it’s just me, but weren’t most of the points the producers tried to make obvious already, or else one-sided arguments? (Nevertheless, here’s a more positive review  than my own here.) Not that I was expecting Ken Burns’ level of television or insight, but is this the best you’ve got? We deserved better.

Certainly, clips of less frequently seen material, like Sid Caesar in tv’s early days, are worth noting. But I was underwhelmed, overall. Some of the commenters at PBS’s official website seem to agree, as well.

Perhaps the series had to be milquetoast like this. Because the supposedly sophisticated PBS audience does not want to be too strongly reminded what a bunch of hypocrites and windbags we are all capable of being. Holding an accurate comic (or non-comic) mirror up to ourselves would just be painful, right? And above all we want to be entertained, not genuinely educated or deeply moved.  (Um, I’m being ironic here… for those comically-challenged among you…)

To serve this shallow, entertainment-oriented culture, therefore, Make ‘Em Laugh gives us a mild analysis of how our favorite comics poked fun at our easiest targets (the politicans, for example). But I say to these prodcuers, “take the splinter from your own eye”, as Jesus once suggested.  For instance, why so little acknowledgement of how the Hollywood establishment recycled old gags, played favorites, or played dirty? Where does a willfully odd, current indie filmmaker like Wes Anderson fit in? Why hide the extremely unfunny, dehumanizing of the Japanese people in Frank Capra’s war-era propaganda cartoons?

Filmmaker Robert Altman’s turning over in his grave right now.

Some of the courageous, occasionally ugly outlaws/originators who broke through anyway are portrayed, but barely (Dick Gregory… an afterthought?). Instead, the “rah-rah Hollywood celebrities” attitude and repetitively mainstream pablum of the interview clips chosen for this series so de-politicized the industry, and our history– and did so little to go “behind the scenes”– that this show effectively gutted the work of our best and brightest.

Furthermore, the actual content of  an Andy Kaufman or Sam Kinison’s act is just too revolutionary to get into in any depth, for such a tradition-bound documentary as this. Or how about the real story behind what led David Letterman (and/or his producers) to cut Bill Hicks’ controversial, recently resurrected comedy routine, 15-1/2 years ago. (Thanks again, Aaron Barnhart of TV Barn, for that last link.) That’s what makes for interesting television and good comedy. Honesty.

So I recommend watching the original material, instead of this hackneyed overview on PBS. Get Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or a Marx Brothers flick at the public library. Track down Laugh-In and Richard Pryor material at YouTube or on DVD. Rent Altman’s The Player. Track down the South Park boys’  Team America puppet masterpiece. See a subversive Mel Brooks movie or the Pythons’ Spamalot, the musical (as I did yesterday afternoon… phenomenal!), for a decidedly less narrow and more daring look at America, Europe, what we find funny, and why.

Not that I don’t love Carol Burnett. But Make ‘Em Laugh only tells half the story about American comedy. It is history seen only through the eyes of “the winners”, and thus it’s not very good history, as documentaries go.

Like comedy, documentary film is best when it has the guts to go out on a limb, or to eat its young, or to show both ordinary people and extraordinary talents at their best AND worst. Like 30 Rock tries to do (though still in a pro-establishment, safe, ironic sort of way). Like Borat did. Like Michael Moore or even Rush Limbaugh sometimes manage to pull off. Like former SNL writer and current U.S. Senator Al Franken did on Air America Radio, before he bravely decided to try changing our ailing culture from the inside.

Hey WNET! You can’t have it both ways: taking potshots at one form of “the establishment”, and yet not wanting to do any harm to the others who support you.  I suppose it’s nice that you want to congratulate some of those “classic” comedians, and let the new kids talk about their heroes. Just don’t play it so safe, because good comedy never does that.

And don’t take yourself  and your subject so seriously that you end up glad-handing a bunch of fakes, or soft-pedaling your corporate sponsors (in an age where the “death of advertising” is also producing much anxiety). Stop over-indulging the “In Crowd” entertainers and executives, who have already had their say in a dozen other contexts (and in much more entertaining and intelligent forums, as well).

Don’t get me wrong, though: we don’t necessarily need to see some talking head, egghead professor (like me, or Cornel West) onscreen, giving a 30-second diatribe. (Okay, maybe a little of that would have helped.) Just give us something fresh. Some real critical thinking. Some imagination.

Seriously, … this isn’t funny anymore. You’re the Public Broadcasting System. So serve your public. Make ‘Em Think. Make ‘Em Better. Make Me Care. And “Go ahead… make my day.” I dare you.


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