President Donald Trump derides CNN as fake news. Does that mean "The History of Comedy," an eight-part documentary series premiering on the network Thurs. Feb. 9, is fake jokes? No, this is the real deal; a deep dive into a century of one-liners, pratfalls, and social commentary; of vaudeville, burlesque and nightclubs, of stand-up, satire and silliness.
As the title of the first episode, "F***ing Funny," indicates, don't expect the decorum of Ken Burns' "The Civil War," or a strict chronology for that matter. Of the first three episodes viewed, each is more about context, how we got from Lenny Bruce to Louis C.K., from Jean Carroll (forgotten today but an acknowledged inspiration to Lily Tomlin) to Sarah Silverman, and from how comedians take their life into their own hands every time they go on stage, as Larry David observes in episode three, to what Maria Bamford celebrates as "the triumph of a good joke."
"It's about how comedians work, the process, and who broke barriers," said Kliph Nesteroff. "A chronological history would not have been the best way (to tell the story) because not everybody would be interested in each episode; they would only be interested in the comedy of their favorite era. It also leaves the door open for a second season."
Nesteroff, one of the consulting producers on the series, literally wrote the book about "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy." His website, Classic Television Showbiz is an essential archive of his exhaustive encyclopedic interviews primarily with indelible 20th century nightclub entertainers. Think the Voices of the Shoah project, but instead of Holocaust survivors, you get Willie Tyler and Lester, Shecky Greene and Woody Woodbury.
And even he proclaims to be impressed with the archival footage "The History of Comedy" has unearthed. "Herzog & Company (the production company that is also responsible for CNN's signature series of documentaries spanning the decades) really did a good job of digging deep. They didn't just hit the same clips that have been seen a million times. They've come up with footage I knew existed but had not seen before; like a clip from 'The David Frost Show' featuring a panel of black comedians that includes Moms Mabley and an obscure comedian named Irwin C. Watson. The found stuff you can't even find on the Internet, which is a tall task these days. Those kinds of things, for a nerd like me, are really impressive."
Also impressive are the historians and performers who along with Nesteroff lend commentary and context to the prodigious clips, including Mike Sacks, author of "Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers," Judd Apatow, Samantha Bee, Carol Burnett, Larry David, Kathy Griffin, Keegan-Michael Key, George Lopez, Marc Maron, Conan O'Brien, Patton Oswalt, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman, and Gilbert Gottfried, whose "Amazing Colossal Podcast" is not to be missed by anyone in thrall to this business we call show (Nesteroff was a recent guest).
"The participation of these giant stars lends enormous credibility to the series," Nesteroff said. "I know there is going to be criticism. It's inevitable; how come so-and-so isn't in there? I guarantee you that the answer is because they said no. Luckily for us, most of the big stars said yes."
"F***ing Funny" works gloriously blue and is brimming with, as George Carlin once ominously intoned, "bad words'; lots of 'em, most of them bleeped, which is ironic for an episode driven by espousers of the church of pushing boundaries and going too far. "Not letting an artist use the word 'f***," observes Craig Ferguson early on, "is like not allowing a guitar player to use the chord E. It's possible to play the instrument, but why...would you bother?"
Carlin's signature "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" is recalled. Only one of them--"tits"--is unbleeped; so we have made some progress since 1972, when Carlin first performed the routine and was charged with obscenity. Lenny Bruce, also featured in this episode, paid a higher price.
The episode finds the through line from Red Foxx and Richard Pryor to Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay and Anthony Jeselnik. "Off limits is not a permanent address, it's a marker," notes Patton Oswalt, who reminds us that network standards at one time would not allow Ricky and Lucy to say she was pregnant.
Future episodes will dwell on female comedians, the mindset of the stand-up, and parody and satire. There will also be an episode that explores political humor. Which begs the question: Is Donald Trump going to herald a boon for comedians?
Nesteroff isn't so sure. "That's like asking if the vice squad was good for Lenny Bruce," he reflected. "Comedy got kind of lazy under George W. Bush. All 'The Late Show with David Letterman' had to do to get a big laugh was show a clip of Bush making a malapropism. They can do that with Donald Trump; just show a clip of him saying something ridiculous and then cut to someone mugging to the camera. I don't think Trump is good for comedy. The only thing that is good is that he appears to feel threatened by it."