Memory Lane winds through a raunchy detour in Cinemax's "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter." An engaging look at the history of the Friars Club, this bare-bones docu, which debuted in summer '99, works as both an insightful piece of showbiz memorabilia and a funny hour of risque TV. Besides, any project that spends a significant amount of time discussing Milton Berle's genitals definitely deserves an audience.

Memory Lane winds through a raunchy detour in Cinemax’s “Let Me In, I Hear Laughter.” An engaging look at the history of the Friars Club, this bare-bones docu, which debuted in summer ’99, works as both an insightful piece of showbiz memorabilia and a funny hour of risque TV. Besides, any project that spends a significant amount of time discussing Milton Berle’s genitals definitely deserves an audience. Who knew Uncle Miltie was so big?

With well-preserved footage and nostalgic interviews, “Laughter,” part of the cable web’s Reel Life series, personalizes what has long been a closed-door fellowship.

Started in New York at the turn of the century, the group has lasted through changes (the emergence of women as guests and members) and highly publicized controversy (accusations of racism). But its constants have always been more notable — this is the world’s most famous fraternity, and acceptance, according to Phyllis Diller, means “you know you’ve arrived.”

Directed by Dean Ward, “Laughter” first focuses on the legendary celebrity roasts, where H’wood players, from George Jessel to Humphrey Bogart to Bruce Willis, have suffered the zings and arrows of performers and emcees who honor through dishonor.First half is a highlight reel. Joey Bishop zings Dean Martin (“He drinks a lot, you know”); Robin Williams insults Richard Pryor (“Black is beautiful, and black is also flammable”); and Jeffrey Ross knocks Larry King (“He’s so ugly, his Hebrew name is Yech”).

Not just a joke-a-thon, “Laughter” eventually sombers up, making it clear that even tradition isn’t immune to the P.C. movement. In 1993, Ted Danson’s appearance in blackface made headlines after the actor feted his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg.

It also caused talkshow host Montel Williams to renounce his affiliation and forced an apology from the establishment.

There have also been litigation threats. The org altered its all-male policies in 1987 only after civil rights attorney and noted feminist Gloria Allred brought her case into the judicial spotlight.

Several endorsed the shift, but others, notably funnyman Pat Cooper, voiced a very loud disapproval.

But “Laughter” shines brightest as a simple collection of snapshots: Frank Sinatra’s tribute to a teary Cary Grant; the gin rummy “Peephole Scandal” of the 1960s that almost brought down the Los Angeles chapter; and comic Harry Einstein’s death in 1958 during one of the dinners. It’s a sentimental hodgepodge of some sincere and serious moments.

There is certainly more technically polished fare out there, but Ward, now on the Friars trustee board, knows this is about the good ol’ days, not perfect filmmaking.

Whether it’s Berle discussing his first visit in 1920, Rob Reiner unleashing a sarcastic monologue full of profanity or Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles offending just about everyone, the glory years come roaring back, thanks to the rimshots, not the technique.

Let Me In, I Hear Laughter

Cinemax; Thurs. Feb. 10, 8 p.m.

Production

Videotaped in Los Angeles and New York by Nostomania Prods.. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins; co-producers, Dean Ward, Dolores Gavin, Karin Levinson; director, Ward; camera, Warren Yeager; editor, Geof Bartz. 60 MIN.

Cast

With: Steve Allen, Milton Berle, Red Buttons, Jack Carter, Sid Caesar, Pat Cooper, Norm Crosby, Phyllis Diller, Janeane Garofalo, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Jackie Martling, Ed McMahon, Jeffrey Ross, Henny Youngman.
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