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PBS at last plays for laughs in six-hour comedy opus

Honeymooners Ralph and Alice Kramden; host Billy Crystal.

But seriously folks, PBS usually isn't that much fun.

Its nightly national menu long has been mostly straight-faced, leaving it to local stations such as KERA-TV (Channel 13) to gift viewers with weekend helpings of British comedies. That will change, for three consecutive Wednesdays at least, with Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, billed by PBS as a "six-hour comedy epic."

I'd rather call it a laugh tract. Har dee hoo hah. The first two chapters air tonight (Wed., Jan. 14th, 7 to 9 p.m. central) opposite two hours of Fox's all-powerful American Idol, which must be somebody's idea of a bad joke. But Make 'Em Laugh should do all right in the ratings anyway, particularly among viewers old enough to remember Jonathan Winters in his prime or The Goldbergs.

Billy Crystal hosts -- but only briefly at the start of each one-hour segment. Amy Sedaris narrates, and does quite a bit of it. You'll otherwise hear from a wealth of comics, "most of them massively depressed, bitter and angry," Crystal says with no small degree of truth.

The 100 or so talking heads, most of whom were interviewed specifically for Make 'Em Laugh, share the screen with a wide variety of well-chosen clips. It all makes for a Ken Burns-ian approach, but without any violin music or long-winded preachments. OK, maybe Jack Benny will be shown playing the violin sometime during Hours 3 to 6. I've only seen the opening two.

We begin with an hour devoted to "Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses?: Nerds, Jerks & Oddballs." Prominently featured are groundbreaking silent film star Harold Lloyd; the early Bob Hope ("a pompous coward trying to win the girl with the wisecrack," says Sedaris); Phyllis Diller; Andy Kaufman; Cheech & Chong; Steve Martin; Woody Allen and the wildly improvisational Winters, who's ordered to "Do something with a stick" during an appearance on Jack Paar's old Tonight Show.

Allen is credited by some with turning milquetoasts into chick magnets after his vintage standup routines became hot tickets on college campuses. Hugh Hefner, an early fan of Allen's, says that's probably a myth. Then he adds, "What he does has always given me a woody." Good one, old man.

Wednesday's second hour ("Honey, I'm Home! Breadwinners and Homemakers") looks at some of TV's landscape-changing sitcoms, including The Goldbergs, The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Cosby Show, I Love Lucy, All In the Family, Roseanne and Seinfeld.

Simpsons creator Matt Groening notes that his favorite character on Leave It to Beaver, sandbagging Eddie Haskell, "just made me vibrate every time he was on-screen." By design then, Bart Simpson is "the son of Eddie Haskell," Groening says.

Roseanne Barr and Bill Cosby aren't much fun at all, though.

Barr, in a new interview, says that her namesake sitcom "pretty much documented the destruction of the working class, and that's what I always wanted it to do."

Cosby, in an archival clip, says of All In The Family and Archie Bunker: "The man himself became a hero to too many Americans for his shortsightedness, his tunnel vision. And I'm really a believer that that show never taught or tried to teach anybody anything."

He has a point, but it would have been good to get a rebuttal from All In The Family creator Norman Lear, who's newly interviewed for Make 'Em Laugh. We do, however, get another look at Sammy Davis Jr.'s famed guest appearance on All In the Family, which ended with him planting a kiss on Archie's sour mug.

The second hour's Seinfeld segment comes and goes with nary a glimpse of Michael Richards or his Kramer character. That seems more than coincidental in light of Richards' now infamous, racially volatile comedy club riff. Whatever the reason for Richards' omission, the impression is that PBS timidly considered him unfit for human consumption. Which is sad.

Next Wednesday's two hours are subtitled "Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts" and "When I'm Bad, I'm Better: The Groundbreakers." And on Wednesday, Jan. 28th, Make 'Em Laugh wraps with "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: The Wiseguys" and "Sock It to Me?:" Satire and Parody."

Not everyone or everything is included, of course. And some of the reported exclusions, most notably Ernie Kovacs, seem just plain ignorant. Then again, this might have something to do with the serious business of obtaining clips at affordable costs.

Oh well, comedy isn't pretty but at least PBS at last is taking a pie in the face. Enjoy the show.