Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America
Episodes 4  The Groundbreakers
Directed by Michael Kantor
Written by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon
PBS January 21st 2009, 9 P.M.

It is ironic the Make ‘Em Laugh  episode on groundbreaking comics is bleeped. Nonetheless, episode 4 of Make ‘Em Laugh The Funny Business of America is simply brilliant. If you have ever wanted to understand why Lenny Bruce is still a legend or why Mae West was such an icon, this episode of this six part comedy documentary explains it better than anything I have seen on the subject.

The Groundbreakers is a comedy documentary about those whose contribution to comedy helped change or caused change. Mae West was arrested for sexual innuendos much before she became a movie star and even as a star her act was declawed two years later by the Hays Code of 1934.

Comics have always fought censorship and Lenny Bruce is the most famous of these. The Groundbreakers features a great, thorough, segment on Bruce. The segment also does what few other shows about Lenny Bruce have been able to do: put the context around Bruce so you understand why he was so disruptive. It is also honest enough to admit Bruce was a bore at the end of his career and not all his material has aged well.

The segments on Mort Sahl and Richard Pryor are also quite good. More on Pryor than on Sahl would have been preferable but there you go.

Of course, no comedy documentary on groundbreaking stand-up comedy or comedians would be complete without George Carlin. What Make ‘Em Laugh brings to the table here is a clip of Carlin defending the 7 words in a conversation with the man who lodged the FCC complaint. There is little about Carlin that remains unsaid so The Funny Business of America does not stand out in this portion of the show.

The Groundbreakers is in my mind the best of the shows (so far perhaps). I got to watch it with a friend who is not a serious comedy fan (she likes the site though) and she too found this episode very interesting.


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