Shows on comedy won't leave you laughing

2 PBS

Tv

November 09, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PBS tonight offers three hours of programs celebrating standout TV comedians ranging from Milton Berle to Steve Martin. The lineup of comics and writers interviewed and shown in performance is dazzling: Larry David, Carl Reiner, Lily Tomlin and Sid Caesar.

Yet, for all the comedic talent onscreen, it is an evening surprisingly devoid of laughs. Worse yet, by the standards of PBS, viewers are not likely to come away from the programs much enlightened about the role of comedy in American life. While PBS does a lot of things very well - documentaries, kids' shows, costume dramas and the evening news with Jim Lehrer - comedy is not one of them, at least not the comedy tonight.

The primetime centerpiece is The Kennedy Center Presents: The 2005 Mark Twain Prize, a two-hour celebration of Steve Martin as this year's recipient. The Kennedy Center is a marvelous hall for television, as anyone who has seen TV's annual The Kennedy Center Honors telecast on CBS knows.

But whereas the black-tie glitter and grandeur of the room seem to serve as perfect backdrop to the Honors, which are often given to great performers near the ends of their lives, here it seems to dwarf the event. Perhaps, it is just the difference in standards of production between CBS and Washington's WETA, which produces the Mark Twain Prize program, but tonight's show has a darker, far less festive look. Furthermore, it seems as if the director is shooting the hall from camera angles intended to hide empty seats. Whatever the reason, it does not make for an engrossing two hours of television.

And, oh, the talent that is wasted. At one point, singer Paul Simon, Monty Python alum Eric Idle and Oscar Award-winning director Mike Nichols simultaneously populate the stage.

The announcer introduces the moment by saying, "In the interests of saving time ... ," and then all three wind up talking and singing about Martin at the same time, producing a cacophony. It is funny for the briefest moment, and then it is merely annoying - especially when one thinks back to it later in the two-hour program and wonders whether the producers shouldn't have been worried about filling time instead of saving it.

Though Martin has evolved creatively through his writing for The New Yorker and appearances in myriad films to become much more than the 1970s concert performer with the banjo on his hip, arrow through his head and uncontrollable happy feet, he is not worth two hours of prime-time celebration. Hate me if you want as you read this, but if you watch tonight, I think you'll feel the same - especially if you slog through the entire program plugged as it is with endless clips from his film career and flat performances by friends.

Actress Claire Danes barely manages to read her cue cards. Diane Keaton does better with a winning rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight," but it seems totally out of joint with most of the rest of the telecast - far too intimate for the Friars' Club Roast sensibility that otherwise dominates.

The best onstage moment belongs to Larry David, creator of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, who delivers a mock monologue as to how Martin's many character flaws make him utterly undeserving of the Twain Award. And David isn't even a standup comedian, which gives you some sense of the sorry effort put forth by comedians like Martin Short and Lily Tomlin in delivering their remarks as prelude to lukewarm film clips.

Viewers looking to see great comedians will find slightly happier hunting with Pioneers of Primetime, a documentary featuring interviews with several monumental performers of television's earliest days: Caesar, Berle, Steve Allen, Bob Hope and Red Skelton. Of that group, only Caesar, the mercurial star of NBC's Your Show of Shows (1950-1954), is still alive.

While seeing the faces and hearing the voices of such show biz giants is always a pleasure, overall, Pioneers is seriously flawed. The documentary is billed as a celebration of the early comedy stars of television, but the real focus is vaudeville.

Vaudeville did shape early primetime, variety-show programming in major ways. But it was not the only force, and in the case of Caesar, at least, it played a minor role. His edgy, groundbreaking performance style was forged by Jewish summer camps in the Catskills, musical revues on Broadway and New York City jazz clubs.

There are great documentary films waiting to be made about vaudeville and the larger-than-large performers of early television. Pioneers does justice to neither.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Pioneers of Primetime and The Kennedy Center Presents: The 2005 Mark Twain Prize 9 and 10 tonight MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and 8 and 9 tonight WETA (Channel 26)

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