60 Years of Comedians

By John J. O'Connor

Stung by the criticism it has been getting for the questionable content of some comedy specials, most notably the body language of Robin Williams and the street language of Eddie Murphy, Home Box Office seems to be trying a more "acceptable" comic profile this month...

The Great Standups, which can be seen on the cable pay-television channel this evening at 9:30, is an hourlong survey of American comedy narrated by Carl Reiner. Spanning 60 years, the documentary purports to show "how our comedy has changed and evolved." ...The producers, Stuart Smiley and Robert B. Weide, simply have got hold of a great deal of archival material and have attempted to arrange it artfully around a fuzzy thesis.

The result is one of those compilations that tease rather than illuminate. Familiar faces whiz past the viewer, everybody from Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice to Steve Martin and Rodney Dangerfield. Occasionally the pace slows down to allow a performer more than 30 seconds exposure, and these moments are the best. Not surprisingly, one of the more extended sequences is taken by Mr. Reiner himself, who is seen with Mel Brooks and their "2,000-Year-Old Man" routine ("I have over 1,500 children," wails Brooks, "and not one comes to visit me on Sunday").

Also not surprisingly, another pause is taken for Sid Caesar, who once was Carl Reiner's boss. Mr. Caesar is seen doing his early monologue about the differences between going out on a date with $5 in 1939 and going out with considerably more money in 1949. Inflation is ever with us. And there are other marvelous bits and pieces: Mort Sahl around 1960 puncturing the egos and myths of the John F. Kennedy crowd; Milton Berle peeling off his mother jokes; Lenny Bruce getting his first big break on, of all places, television's Arthur Godfrey Show; and Jonathan Winters doing a hilarious impersonation of a painfully shy man named Ludlow singing "Moonlight Becomes You."

As to how our comedy changed and evolved, the references and explanations are never more than superficial. There are only brief mentions, for instance, of the difficulties faced for decades by black performers and even briefer glimpses of the phenomenon of white performers (Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel) performing in blackface.

We are told that the current, or at least recent, "me" decade, wanting just plain goofy fun, is responsible for the success of comedians such as Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. But that hardly explains the renewed success of an octogenarian named George Burns.

There are some marvelous nuggets of humor to be found in The Great Standups, but the program is in too much of a rush to toss them at us. This kind of material could be stretched out comfortably over an extended series. That kind of format would also allow time for developing any and all comedy theories with the seriousness that they deserve.

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