DOCUMENTARY SERIES “The History of Comedy”

WHEN | WHERE Eight-part series starts Thursday at 10 p.m. on CNN


WHAT IT’S ABOUT This survey, produced by Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner, contains lots of archival footage and interviews, notably with Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Al Franken, Margaret Cho, Samantha Bee, Jimmy Kimmel, Kathy Griffin, George Lopez, Keegan-Michael Key, Conan O’Brien, Patton Oswalt, Dick Cavett, Ali Wong and W. Kamau Bell. Each episode covers a topic, from “blue” to “politics,” the final episode on March 30.

MY SAY With the first couple of episodes as a guide, CNN’s history of comedy appears to be a close cousin to CNN’s histories of the decades (’60s, ’70s, ’80s). Both are comprehensive, both sober-minded, both intelligent, both full of interviews and both essentially exercises in telling viewers something they pretty much already know. Think of this as that present that comes carefully wrapped, and when opened the gift inside is exactly the one you expected. Nothing wrong with that. Just don’t expect to be surprised.

“History Of Comedy” does, however, want to shake viewers out of their cable news network-induced stupor, which is why the series launches Thursday with a discussion of blue comics. (In fact, the episode was originally titled “Going Blue,” but CNN switched to the less-torpor-inducing “[Expletive] Funny” instead.) There’s one quick and interesting overview of the origin of blue humor (we know there are others), dating back to vaudeville days when risqué performers were handed a blue envelope backstage if they scandalized the audience. Those envelopes, so to speak, were really pushed during the era of burlesque theater, when stand-ups had to keep (mostly male) patrons amused in between striptease acts.

“History of Comedy” then rolls out the big names, along with clips, of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and so on. That’s also when the obvious shortcomings of this or any survey program becomes obvious. With so much material and so many comics, whom to include? Who not to?

For some not-particularly-obvious reason, “History of Comedy” ignores Joan Rivers during this hour, but instead covers her career in the Feb. 16 episode on female comedians, “The Funnier Sex.” Rivers was as influential a “blue” stand-up as any male counterpart in history, but shoehorning her into the hour on women leaves the ridiculously wrong impression that her influence was limited to female comics.

In fact, Rivers profoundly influenced the whole wide world of comedy, from late-night TV to comedy of “real life,” of politics, of the “cultural divide,” and of “ripped from the headlines.” Except for late-night TV, each of these is the topic of future hours. “History of Comedy” certainly doesn’t mean to short-sell Rivers or her generations of fans. It just doesn’t seem quite certain who or what to prioritize.

To its credit, “History of Comedy” does appear determined to cover every foot of this vast waterfront. Bill Cosby’s contributions won’t be ignored either, as if they could be. “The Cosby Show” will be covered in the Feb. 23 edition (“The Comedy of Real Life”) and his stand-up career in the March 16 edition that “explores the evolution of racial humor.”

Meanwhile, do check out the listings each week for the specific topic of interest to you. If your favorite stand-up was ignored in one episode, chances are good he or she will get their close up in another one.

BOTTOM LINE A broad survey that covers vast and familiar territory, with lots of commentary and good clips, but it tends to ignore those who are new and emerging, along with the new media landscape in which they work.

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