restricted access Norman Jewison's Comedy in the 20th Century: Funny is Money
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Regular Feature | Film Reviews Marc Oxoby University of Nevada, Reno Oxoby@aol.com Norman Jewison's Comedy in the 20th Century: Funnyis Money Despite its subject matter, Norman Jewison's Comedy in the 20th Century is not extraordinarily funny. As the title "Funny is Money" suggests, Jewison's documentary does not so much emphasize the development of comedy in the twentieth-century, but is instead an exploration of the comedy industry. As a consequence, the humor is often secondary to issues of commerce. Still, with interviews with comedians and humorists like Milton Berle, Jackie Mason, Robert Klein, and Al Franken one would be hardpressed to stifle the jokes. Perhaps most representative is Steve Allen who feels compelled to apologize for his inability to offer straight commentary. The tension between the serious documentary and its less than serious subject, however , is what really brings Funny is Money to life. It is, indeed, the major theme of the documentary as Jewison spends much of the film exploring the tensions between the commerce of comedy and its inherent rebelliousness and iconoclasm. Appropriately, Jewison reaches back to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in examining this tension. Chaplin, for instance, became the most recognized cinematic performer of his era, even as the messages he delivered were often politically charged and, consequently, opened him up to accusations of socialist inclinations. Criticized or not, however , no one could deny Chaplin's box-office draw. Indeed, comedy has helped sell more than movie tickets. Upon its introduction, television was largely sold to the American public by the shows of Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. But while these early shows were reasonably innocuous, Funny is Money traces how, as television became more comfortably ensconced in American households, comedians sought to push the boundaries further, as demonstrated by Lenny Bruce's appearance on the Steve Allen Show and the SmothersBrothers' commentaries about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which ultimately contributed to the cancellation of their variety show. The treatment leads quite naturally into a consideration of the comedy of marginalized groups. Comedy as a form of self-expression and social activism proved a powerful tool for women (represented here particularly well by Phyllis Diller) and for African Americans (exemplified by Dick Gregory). Jewison also explores the evolving face of comedy in light of changing social mores, but never loses sight of the commercial angle. Lenny Bruce, for instance, was acutely aware of the fact that no matter how offensive some might deem his material, clubs would invite him back because he made them money. But even as we might appreciate the satire of Bruce and other so-called "sick comedians," Funny is Money casts a more critical gaze on the growing coarseness of comedy, exemplified by the meanness of a Sam Kinison or Howard Stern. But the documentary acknowledges that such humor does sell. And interestingly , such coarseness in comedy is shown to be dimmed by the increasing crudeness of everyday discourse. The affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, for instance, demonstrates this, as well as a kind of unintentional , absurdist humor (as illustrated by the addition of George Schlatter's suggested rimshot to network news reportage of the affair.) Perhaps the greatest drawback to Jewison's documentary is that the subject simply can't be done total justice. The scope might well lend itself to not just one documentary but to an entire series. Any viewer will naturally be disturbed by the omission of particular comic luminaries. In my own mind, the most grievous omission is that of television situation comedy, an omnipresent commercially successful form. Although the documentary's introduction explores the enormous success and media circus surrounding the final episode of Seinfeld, which "defined a whole new era in sitcom" according to one man-in-the street interview, no further mention is made of the development of this form except for a brief examination of All in the Family. It seems there's some particularly fruitful ground to be explored in light of the tensions between the commercial and the rebellious examined by Funny is Money, particularly when we consider the homogenized Vol. 30.1 (March, 2000) | 69 Various | In the 20th Century: A Look at...


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