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In The Mix
March 10, 2017

Laugh Tracks

For a history of humor, producers sift through a bounty of jokes that, fortunately, know few bounds.

Barry Garron
  • Robin Williams

  • George Carlin

  • Lenny Bruce

    Michael Ochs Archives
  • Lucille Ball

    Getty Images

While planning their eight-hour CNN docu-series, The History of Comedy, the producers faced a challenge that wasn’t very funny. They’d made a list of 30 topics but had only eight episodes.

The result, nonetheless, is an appealing and fascinating look at such topics as blue humor, female comedians, political humor, parody and comedic madness.

“Even though it’s called The History of Comedy, not everything and not everyone is in there,” says Kliph Nesteroff, a comedy historian, author and consulting producer for the series. “It’s impossible to include everything. It’s a history of comedy but, at the same time, it’s going to focus on the stories that are most engaging.”

Not surprisingly then, the series — which debuted in February and remains available on demand and on CNN Go — tilts heavily toward stand-up  comedians and television.

Among the gems are clips of the Ed Sullivan Show veteran Jean Carroll, “a great stand-up comedian in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” recalls executive producer  Mark Herzog, whose company made the series as well as The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties and The Nineties for CNN.

Adds executive producer Todd Milliner: “We have a great moment with  Robin Williams, which is so touching — I’d never seen it before. He’s on stage  and projecting what he’s going to be like as an old man.”

The blue-humor episode includes numerous clips of Lenny Bruce as well as George Carlin, whose list of “the seven dirty words you can’t say on television” seems so tame by today’s standards that current comedians interviewed for the program struggle to name them.

Producers selected among hundreds of clips, mindful that skits and bits that made audiences laugh years ago might not elicit chuckles today. “Comedy is delicate,” Nesteroff observes. “It doesn’t hold up the way drama does. Producers chose clips that would probably get the best response from a contemporary audience.”

Omitted, therefore, was nearly all comedy from the Golden Age of radio, most film comedy, comedy in literature, comedy on stage and comedy overseas.

Producers hope the series does well enough to be renewed for additional seasons, enough to make all 30 of the episodes on the initial list and more.

Nesteroff imagines an episode on gay themes in comedy. “There were a lot of homosexual comedians throughout history who were closeted. Exploring their lives would be fascinating.”

And Milliner looks forward to “an episode devoted to comedy in theater, Broadway and otherwise. We spent a little time talking about Second City when we talk about Saturday Night Live, but we didn’t do a deep dive.”

Herzog hopes for an episode on comic duos. “We touch a little bit on Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but we’re really focusing on May [as a female comedian]. We mention the Smothers Brothers, but there are so many great teams and duos out there.

“I’d love to look at comedians from other cultures that haven’t made it here yet,” he adds. “So, yes, we’ve got a bunch of ideas to think about.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017

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