Hillary Atkin

How Comedy Makes History

Jul 13, 2018

There are many time-honored traditions when it comes to making people laugh and a host of them were explored in the first season of “The History of Comedy,” a nine-part docuseries that wrapped in August 2017.

With an almost limitless amount of material to explore, CNN Originals is set to debut a second season with an episode all about sex in comedy and how it continues to push the boundaries of both personal comfort and political correctness.

As with previous installments, “Carnal Knowledge“ features interviews and clips of comedy kings, queens and legends across the decades including Richard Pryor, Mae West, Woody Allen, Lily Tomlin and Judd Apatow and films known for sexual humor like “When Harry Met Sally,” “Animal House,” “Porky’s,” Trainwreck,” “Bridesmaids” and of course, Allen’s 1972 classic “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.”

The subtext running through all six episodes of the new season is an examination of not only what makes people laugh but how comedy has affected and even changed the social and political landscape throughout history.

Using archival footage coupled with contemporary interviews, “The History of Comedy” also brings to light little-before-known luminaries who pushed the boundaries of societal acceptance, particularly women and people of color.

“We found new footage of folks we didn’t know existed, and some of it that I hadn’t seen is shocking,” says executive producer Todd Milliner. “Probably the other thing that really surprised me was no matter what period, whether it be vaudevillian through today, is not only how much comedy reflects what’s going on in the world but helps us cope with it. Netflix is probably announcing a comedy special at this moment. Now we need it more than ever. It’s helped us get through tough times in this country and it’s always been there for us.”

Even since the turn of the 21st century, comedy has shifted — from the changing of the guard on late-night television to the emergence of digital platforms like Funny or Die and YouTube to the popularity of political comedy and the resurgence of “Saturday Night Live.”

“Comedy comes in so many forms now,” Milliner says. “Johnny Carson and David Letterman would have a comedian on every night and then that person would then get a sitcom. That’s what happened with Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano. Now you have [adult-oriented] animation and YouTube combined with news comedy like ‘The Daily Show.’ The coolest thing is that we have not just traditional ways like sitcoms and multi-cams but all these other pathways. There’s also been a resurgence in stand-up, which didn’t ever really go away.”

Milliner, who says he is a Letterman guy, says Carson and Jay Leno made soft fun of everybody and that each was “a welcome person to go to bed with.”

“Now it seems like to step away in late-night you have to have a strong opinion,” he says. “Colbert has found his sweet spot and it’s been so wonderful to watch. Trevor Noah’s humor is honest. Jimmy Kimmel is one of my favorites, not only his point of view but his breadth of knowledge. I’ve always known he’s a thoughtful, emotional guy as much as he is funny.”

Another late-night host, Conan O’Brien, is one of the many current stars adding insights about the world of comedy throughout the series. Also interviewed are Steve Martin, Martin Short, Mo’Nique, Tim Allen, Billy Eichner, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Kenny and Keith Lucas, Mike Myers, W. Kamau Bell, Marc Maron, Whitney Cummings, Jim Jefferies, Rachel Bloom, Jim Gaffigan, Sinbad and Catherine O’Hara.

Upcoming episodes examine comedy duos and teams — a concept that saw its heyday decades ago — comedy in animation, sketch comedy, family-friendly comedy and comedy legends like Robin Williams and Sam Kinison who were gone too soon.

“The History of Comedy” is produced by Milliner and Sean Hayes and their Hazy Mills Productions along with Mark Herzog and Christopher G. Cowen of Herzog & Company. Stephen J. Morrison is the showrunner.

(Season 2 of “History of Comedy” premieres on CNN Sunday, July 15 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)

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