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THE HISTORY OF COMEDY Takes Getting Silly Seriously (Sundance Review)

THE HISTORY OF COMEDY Takes Getting Silly Seriously (Sundance Review)

CNN is billing its upcoming docuseries The History of Comedy as an exploration of “what makes us laugh, why, and how that’s influenced our social and political landscape throughout history”—a perfect encapsulation of what the project achieves. It utilizes clips of performances (some little-seen) and insights from the usual gang of idiots (think Patton Oswalt, Larry David, W. Kamau Bell, Sarah Silverman) to create a narrative vein running both between comic styles and the culture they reflect(ed).

Seen through the lens of this doc, the job of American comedy over the last century has largely been to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The eight-part smorgasbord of thoroughly-contextualized, whoopie-cushion-laced info is thankfully broken up into digestible chunks. The two episodes that screened at Sundance covered going blue (cursing, breaking taboos, and generally upsetting the squares) and the profound relationship between mental illness and making people laugh.

The undercurrent sweeping through both was the symbiotic nature between comic and audience that necessitates the progression from status quo to shock to acceptance to a new status quo. At the same time, the series smartly recognizes that every generation has had impressively raunchy humor. Even as Vaudeville was trying to make a buck by appealing to audiences of all ages, The History of Comedy travels into the burlesque clubs for comedians who had to compete with naked women for attention. In other words, we’ve always been gross, but it’s not always mainstream. Chaucer would be proud.

Speaking of which, the series will look beyond contemporary American stand-up to live up to its title, analyzing what made the groundlings in Shakespeare and Plato’s times laugh, and more. After seeing two episodes, I trust that the connective tissue between all these eras that gives the documentary its third dimension will be kept solidly in tact.

The History of Comedy is also unafraid of getting personal or focusing on how jokes and tragedy are regularly inextricable from one another. In one harrowing moment during “Spark of Madness,” the doc edits together a conversation praising Robin Williams for his genius as close friend Bobcat Goldthwaite explains Williams’ great desire for a reprieve from his pain, capped by footage of Williams appearing on Inside the Actors Studio. Recontextualized by the conversation, his antics in front of James Lipton become transparent. You can see the desperation on his face to get the laugh. To fiercely and greatly need it.

Executive producers Sean Hayes, Todd Milliner, Mark Herzog, and Christopher G. Cowen have presided over an entertaining and informative project that’s buoyed by a wide array of talking heads (professional comics and academics) who dig into details without getting bogged down in industry-speak. It’s a fun diversion for fans of humor, and yet the obvious downside is that The History of Comedy doesn’t cover much ground. Yes, the episode about censorship is going to spend time on Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Redd Foxx. There’s a “greatest hits” sensibility at work here, which makes sense considering how much history they have to condense into hour-long episodes, but it still means that the very people who may be drawn to the series will find themselves learning what they already know.

Still, the show is fun and fact-filled. A smart peak into how the past informs the present that does right by taking the funny stuff seriously.

3 out of 5 burritos:

3-burritos3

The History of Comedy premieres Thursday, February 9th on CNN at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Images: CNN

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