CNN explores ‘History of Comedy’ starting Feb. 9, tackles gender, vulgarity, mental illness

history-of-comedy

This was posted on Thursday, February 9, 2017 by Rodney Ho for the AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Outside of Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper joshing around on New Year’s Eve every year, Atlanta-based CNN isn’t exactly a yukfest as its anchors typically tackle whatever Donald Trump last tweeted, healthcare, terrorist threats and other weighty stuff.

But when Sean Hayes of “Will & Grace” fame and his executive producing partner Todd Milliner offered up a thematic look at the history of comedy in the United States, CNN said yes.

Sure, “The History of Comedy” isn’t just jokes. It’s an eight-part weekly documentary exploring various subjects related to comedy such as female comics, the use of vulgarity over the years and mental illness fueling comedic genius. It debuts February 9 at 10 p.m.

Milliner’s crew interviewed more than 80 people, from old-school actors such as Carl Reiner and Betty White to stand-up artists such as Margaret Cho, Conan O’Brien and George Lopez. They also included the voices of producers such as Judd Apatow and family members of late legends such as Richard Pryor. Milliner’s favorite was stand-up and actor Patton Oswalt, a serious historian of the craft who could have overseen the series himself. They also dug up a ton of classic archival comic material from decades past.

The first episode airing February 9 is focused on how Lenny Bruce, Pryor and George Carlin pushed the edges of comedy and what society considered appropriate humor. This also meant a comical number of bleeps. Yet a few words that the more conservative AJC standards & practices would want me to avoid made it through CNN’s censors, including the actual words used in the phrase T&A.

“We screened it at Sundance uncut,” said Millner, who also executive produced TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” and NBC’s “Grimm.” It  was a bit jarring hearing all of the words Carlin said couldn’t be said on TV over and over again. And he noticed CNN is actually a bit more permissive than NBC and other broadcast networks.

The history lessons were enlightening, even to people in the business like Hayes.

“I never knew where ‘blue’ comedy came from,” Hayes said to Jimmy Kimmel on Kimmel’s talk show recently (Hayes wasn’t available for an interview with me). “During burlesque, if your act was too racy or controversial, you’d get a blue slip. Written on it was the part of the act you had to cut out.”

Milliner’s favorite episode was “Spark of Madness” focused on comics and their mental craziness. Not surprisingly, Robin Williams received a lot of airtime. “It’s fascinating,” Milliner said. “It’s cliche that comedians have dark backgrounds. People like Richard Lewis struggled so much with depression, alcohol and drugs. There was Maria Bamford and her paralyzing fears. It really makes you take a deep breath. It punches you. For a lot of them, making us laugh helped them get through their issues. We got to be entertained.”

He said one person he would have liked to have interviewed was Mary Tyler Moore, who passed recently. She was too ill to appear on camera. But he did get to work with her on “Hot in Cleveland” a couple of times a few years back including a mini-“Mary Tyler Moore” reunion.

“She was lovely,” Milliner said. “She wasn’t moving as well as before. But she went and talked to the audience a few times. We were grateful we were able to be part of comedy history. I went down to say hello to her. We talked for a half hour. She was gracious all the way to the end.”

The best trailer for the show came courtesy of the ever irascible Larry David. “He was making fun of us,” Milliner said. “We didn’t even plan on that being a promo. He was actually lovely to deal with.”

TV PREVIEW

“The History of Comedy,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, CNN

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