The Art of Comedy Throughout the Ages and ‘History of the Joke’

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

In 2005, the History Channel dipped into the world of comedy documentaries with a two-hour special, History of the Joke, structured around the idea of looking for the world’s best joke. The special is produced and hosted by Lewis Black, who explains that all comedians would “sell our souls, those of us who have one, to find a magic formula that creates the greatest joke ever told.” It’s a light-hearted quest that provides a narrative for the documentary, but is never taken earnestly.

The film has many of the elements of a standard, broad-based look at comedy. It’s broken down into sections — some are very specific joke-based segments, like ones about physical comedy or dirty jokes, while others are more generic comedy categories like women in comedy and taboos. There are also talking head interviews with a number of comedians, including a welcome mix of comedians from different generations and styles.

But History of a Joke really works because of its unique approach to the subject. The documentary is sprinkled with information about comedy from years long gone, concerning the likes of Aristotle and Shakespeare. The history factoids are used sparingly enough for to be genuinely interesting and relevant to the discussions, avoiding the trap of weighing down the film with extended historical digressions. It also spends significant time with Professor Richard Wiseman, who supposedly discovered the world’s funniest joke back in 2002. While his role is limited to a recurring classroom sketch with Black, who dismisses most of his findings, Wiseman’s work both in the history and science of jokes provides a nice balance to the comedian’s anecdotal stories.

Another major asset of the film is that it never feels like it’s talking down to its audience, a recurring problem in documentaries when comedians can come across as off-putting and smug. There are also discussions, like a section at the end entitled “What is laughter?” that approach stand-up from a refreshingly different angle.

There are many famous and influential comedians featured, from Robin Williams to Shelley Berman to Kathy Griffin, but perhaps the documentary’s biggest asset is the inclusion and undeniable enthusiasm of George Carlin. Watching him speak, its hard not to feel that his genius as a comic came, in part, from such a deep understanding of comedy and the ability to articulate that knowledge in a way that eludes most comics. The film is well worth watching for Carlin alone.

Because this is a history of the joke, there are many, many of jokes. They tend to be of the traditional setup, punchline structure, a style that many comedians reject but continues to exist for a reason — these jokes are funny. It’s also edited very well, showing comics riffing, screwing up, and then nailing punchlines, presenting stand-up in a dynamic way that television doesn’t always manage.

It says something that a channel devoted mostly to war retrospectives and speculative apocalypse specials would make one of the strongest comedy documentaries. Even on a topic outside of their normal area of expertise, the producers have made a professional film that approaches comedy with the same gravity as any other subject matter. It finally feels like the serious treatment that comedy deserves.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Completely. The documentary embraces an intellectual take on comedy, and celebrates the comics willing to discuss jokes in an intense, nerdy way.

What does it have to say about comedy? There’s a lot going on, but at its center, it’s about the art of the joke. Discussions about what constitutes a joke and what makes it work are still up for debate, and the film allows comedians to hold opposing views on these matters without imposing any judgment.

Is it funny? Yes, very. There are really funny jokes throughout the film, sometimes used to illustrate a particular point, and other times to introduce a theme or topic.

Can I stream it on Netflix? No. It is available for purchase, and can be seen, ahem, elsewhere.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. If men are twice as likely to laugh at women’s jokes than women are at men’s, does that mean she’s twice as funny as she thinks she is?

The Art of Comedy Throughout the Ages and ‘History of […]