CNN’s ‘The History of Comedy’ is Most Essential When It’s No Laughing Matter

By  · Published on February 9th, 2017

The mostly serious documentary series begins tonight.

We can all use a good laugh these days, but CNN’s new documentary series The History of Comedy isn’t the place to find one. That’s not a criticism so much as a fact. While the eight-part program features plenty of funny clips from television, movies, stand-up specials, and more, it’s about comedy rather than a showcase of comedy. As such, it’s still a good primer, often a lesson on who the legends are and occasionally an essential exploration of humor and its creators and performers that does feel pretty pertinent right now.

The funniest thing about The History of Comedy is probably that it’s on a cable news network, where the real world is seen becoming more and more ridiculous by the day, where things are reported on or said directly that seem conceived for The Onion or as perfect setups for the likes of late night talk shows and Saturday Night Live sketches. The series itself does tackle current events, with future episodes focused on comedy “ripped from the headlines,” plus satire, the gender and racial cultural divides, and, concluding the program, political humor.

Having only seen three earlier episodes so far, I don’t know if The History of Comedy has already managed to fit in or will add anything terribly contemporary in that final episode, the synopsis for which acknowledges not just comedy being inspired by politics but also politics being influenced by comedy. How about sitting presidents regularly complaining about parodies of themselves and their administration? And what of comedy writers being fired for joking about the president’s child? Perhaps CNN can produce a follow-up series titled The Present State of Comedy.

The first part of this series, which premieres tonight (February 9th), also comes with some irony in being aired on a commercial network with limits on certain kinds of language. The episode offers a history of “blue” material from the days of burlesque to the modern era of almost anything goes. There is no expositional narration, as we hear of the necessary stories of Redd Foxx and party albums, Lenny Bruce and obscenity, and George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Andrew Dice Clay, Friars’ Club Roasts, and more, through interviews with notable comedians, writers, and the family members of some of the icons who’ve passed on.

With so much bleeped out and much that’s hopefully already well known by comedy fans, “F***ing Funny” isn’t the best episode to begin with, except maybe as an easy, familiar starting off point. The most interesting bits, which aren’t stressed too hard, include the distinction between underground raunchy records played in homes and the stand-up deemed public indecency in spite of the First Amendment and targeted because of religious reasons. Also there’s some address of comedians whose acts were intended as offensive characters but weren’t always obvious enough as such to fans.

The other two upcoming episodes I’ve seen have more substance. Next week’s “The Funnier Sex” is similarly a straightforward timeline spotlight on specific comedians, this time women, from Jean Carroll to Amy Schumer, but that’s still an important history. Even if it ends with Patton Oswalt criticizing the very series he’s in by complaining that it’s (at the time of the interview) 2016 and we’re still devoting an episode to women in comedy. But it is nevertheless necessary in spite of itself. Besides, there’s rarely the level of address of women comedy writers, like Lucille Kallen, in addition to the performers, as is found in this episode.

I’ve also seen “Spark of Madness,” an episode airing in early March, that will sound about as depressing as a series on comedy can get. The focus is on comedians’ psychological problems, from those with undiagnosed manic personalities and self-esteem issues to admitted sufferers of mood disorders and substance abuse. Robin Williams is very prominent in this part, of course, as are notorious overdose victims John Belushi and Chris Farley, and the idea of the high of performance is discussed. Not by medical experts, though, still only on a personal level by the comedians themselves.

It’s not a surprise that a history of comedy goes to such dark places. Look at most documentaries and narrative films about comedians, true or not, and there’s a chance they’re more gloomy than hilarious. But in my experience, studies of comedy, as well as histories of art and pop culture in general, devote their time mainly to positive aspects, the milestones and the people worth celebrating. It’s not that there’s anything revelatory here, especially without more qualified commentary, but it is unusual for a topic like mental health to get its own concentrated episode in a documentary series chronicling a history of entertainment.

I’m anxious to see how deep and serious the rest of The History of Comedy goes. But even if it’s primarily a basic look at comedy, a subject that’s always fascinating to analyze due to its conflict of subjective (varying senses of humor) and objective (knowledge and appreciation of the craft) responses, that’s good enough. Dissecting and even properly praising or criticizing comedy can take away from the pure enjoyment of that which makes us laugh, yet it’s a crucial part of media literacy, now more than ever. CNN’s series does its part to broaden that grasp for viewers, and as an introduction to much of it, hopefully it’s only the first step.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.