For aficionados of comedy, watching the documentary History of the Joke with Lewis Black - airing Monday night on the History Channel - is like traversing a minefield you're happy to cross. The suspense is in which one-liner, observation, off-the-cuff remark or nostalgic knee-slapper from childhood is going to be the one that catches you off guard and reduces you to tears. And there are plenty of auditioners, since director David Greene turns his camera on dozens of stand-ups (mostly against a white screen, as if they were in a postmodern TV commercial). The comics talk about the art of trying to get an audience to laugh, covering topics such as timing, taboo humor, bombing and the uphill struggle for female stand-ups in a mostly male world. Rant comedian Lewis Black hosts with a mixture of deference - when he's talking to peers he obviously respects - and deflating wit, as when he talks to an uptight British professor who a few years ago sought to scientifically determine the funniest joke in the world. (The winner ... isn't.)
Since this is the History Channel, there are shout-outs to the street performers of ancient Sparta, a dirty-minded, 15th-century papal secretary and Freud. But mostly the film is an excuse to showcase funny people saying funny things, albeit with identifying tags that acknowledge the weight of time and experience. So under Dave Attell talking, you see: "Dave Attell, Comedian - 20 Years."
The lack of archival footage is a minus, though. When Richard Pryor is lionized, you're waiting for a performance clip that never comes, whereas there's plenty of new evidence that Gallagher still likes destroying food with oversized mallets. Legendary wordsmith and master observation comic George Carlin, in the business 52 years, is the doc's elder-statesman hero. Hailed by other interviewees as the reason they got into comedy, perhaps unsurprisingly he offers the sharpest explication of the profession's ideal - that to be clever and smart isn't about trying to make the audience think.
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"That would really be the kiss of death," he says. "But I want them to know that I'm thinking."