CNN's History of Comedy producer promises learning, laughs, and a poignant Robin Williams moment
CNN is one of the last places TV audiences might expect to watch something funny, but the network is delivering some big laughs with its new original series, The History of Comedy.
Premiering Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET, the eight-part series delivers on its title, taking viewers into the world of comedy through various topics — blue humor, women in comedy, the dark side of comedy, political humor, parody and satire, comedy in race/culture, comedy ripped from the headlines, and comedy found in everyday life.
For Todd Milliner, who co-created and executive produces the series alongside his producing partner, Will & Grace‘s Sean Hayes, the show couldn’t be making its debut at a better time.
“David Letterman reminded us it was okay to laugh after 9/11. I think throughout history, one thing that’s been constant has been comedy, and I think that was the biggest eye-opening part of the show for me, that everything’s going to be okay, so why don’t we take a moment to laugh about it,” Milliner tells EW. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be more vigilant or pay attention to what’s happening, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protest and be activists, but every time you’re feeling a little bit like it’s too much, take a moment to laugh.”
And it’s hard not to watching this series, which features interviews with Larry David, Betty White, Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien, Kathy Griffin, George Lopez, Keegan-Michael Key, and many more.
EW talked to Milliner, whose credits include Hot in Cleveland, Grimm, Hollywood Game Night, and Sean Saves the World, ahead of the CNN Original Series’ debut where we learned the moment he finds the most profound, and the topic he wants to cover for another episode in a potential season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The title is The History of Comedy, but it’s not like you started with the first recorded telling of a joke. There is a lot of history when it comes to this subject, so how did you decide this would be the format, breaking it down into topics, and did you have other ideas before settling on this?
TODD MILLINER: We always knew we were going to do it thematically, not chronologically. Our big worry was if you do something like this chronologically you risk losing some viewers who don’t want to see, you know, a couple episodes based in the silent film era. [Laughs.] So we ended up with about 30 different topics that we started with, and then we narrowed that for this first season to what we, along with CNN, thought would be a great first season. It didn’t mean these are the only things we want to cover, but we thought as a first season, these eight are a smart way to start. We’ve already found additional episode topics just even from doing interviews that we’d like to tackle if we’re lucky enough to get a second season.
I understand Betty White has something to do — maybe not directly — with the idea for this. Is that true?
Only in as much as I am friends with Betty While, and working on Hot in Cleveland, we had a parade of wonderful comedians from all over history. So when Sean and I talked about, what is the kind of docuseries that we should be bringing to CNN, we thought, the history of comedy: Let’s talk to these folks while we’re lucky enough to still be able to access them and hear their stories.
To that point, there are many who, of course, are no longer around for you to talk to for this — Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, so many comedy giants — and seeing their contributions to comedy was really special. Was it difficult to keep yourself in check to and not make anything an “in memoriam” of sorts?
We didn’t want to just limit it to folks that just represent a certain period. We found there was a ton of value in comedy represented by all ages. So, I might want to sit and talk to those folks for a lot longer, but we wanted to tell a bunch of stories. Those are very important ones, but just as important is hearing Ali Wong’s voice or W. Kamau Bell’s.
You cover a lot of ground in each episode in a very entertaining and engaging way — the 42 minutes really fly by. Was that a concentrated effort to really keep things snappy or it just… happened?
I think what ended up happening was, we just had a ridiculous amount of footage.
Which can actually make your job more difficult.
It does. If you’ve seen any of the promos — Larry David, or Rob Reiner, or Lewis Black — we didn’t even ask for any of those promos. Those were things that they just said between takes, so we just got so lucky that we had so much footage, and I think that’s one reason we clicked through it. Coming from Second City Chicago, I think one thing we always learned when doing sketch shows, which I think we’ve tried to do the same thing in everything we’ve produced is, if you don’t like one thing, just wait a second because we’re going to get you somewhere else. So if you’re not loving one moment, just hang on a second because there’s something for you coming up.
Speaking of sketch comedy, I didn’t, and maybe many others won’t, know how influential Mike Nichols and Elaine May were in that scene. It was an “Oh, wow!” moment for me. And I’m sure you had your own?
Yeah, there were so many “Oh, wow!” moments for me. I had no idea where “going blue” actually came from. [Laughs.] So there were those kinds of moments all along, but I think the stuff that really stuck out to me was in “Spark of Madness” (episode 3). You hear the cliché that there’s a lot of darkness in comedy, but it was really eye-opening to hear from people like Richard Lewis and Maria Bamford as to how deep it went.
Some people have said that when comedians got sober, they weren’t as funny, or lost their edge. Richard Lewis found he had a lot more material after admitting to his addictions.
I thought one of the most interesting things that was said in that episode was Gilbert Gottfried, who talked about the comedy and tragedy masks and you ever think how they’re related? And some of the folks that did act probably so provocatively when they were around, that maybe there is some tie to the drug and alcohol abuse. Obviously not for everybody. I think for a lot of comedians that we talked to, being on stage ended up being their vice, their thing that got them through a lot of the hardest times in their lives — got us through a lot of the hardest times in our lives.
Therapy sessions for everyone.
The title of that episode is “Spark of Madness,” as you mentioned, and it’s a reference to something Robin Williams says. The moment lingers for just an extra second, and I think it’s one of the most profound moments of the three episodes so far I’ve been able to see.
I think you might have hit what I think, for me, is the most profound moment of the series. I think Robin Williams, when you’re my age, 25-54 [laughs], you grow up in the heyday of Robin Williams, and that story really hit me hard. And then how he kind of noticed his own madness and that it’s okay to have a little madness — I think it’s super compelling.
The first episode is all about blue material. Did you just want to get the risqué stuff out of the way first?
[Laughs] I think so. We wanted to start provocatively because, with a title like History of Comedy, you want to let people know there’s going to be as much learning as there are laughs. There are some interesting tidbits, but there’s some really funny stuff in every episode. So we wanted to start with a bang — [Laughs] so to speak. I think Jim Jefferies says it in one of the episodes — some comedians like to warm people up to the more risqué stuff, and he’d rather jump right in and hopefully the people that couldn’t really handle the risqué stuff would get out of there and he could really have fun.
Also interesting in the first episode, though, is that you go back to the days of vaudeville and burlesque and how it paved the way for what came later in movies, TV shows, stand-up.
I think the relationship between burlesque and the comedians [of vaudeville] who had to compete with almost naked women, you had to start being a little more provocative in your comedy because people are there to see… breasts. [Laughs] So that was super interesting because we don’t think about that now in the time that we grew up, but the roots go all the way back. Some of the funniest stuff — people have asked me if I think that’s funny anymore, and I think funny is funny, good is good. After the Super Bowl, I found myself watching old episodes of The Honeymoooners. True story. I think good is good. I don’t think we’ve gotten necessarily more funny, it’s just evolved the way the world has evolved.
Something that struck me in the premiere is when a slightly older and bearded George Carlin is standing next to a cardboard cutout of his younger self and says, referring to his old work, “I wasn’t in my own act.” Did other comedians share a similar sentiment with you about the evolution of their work and discovering themselves?
That one was so specific to George Carlin. Even Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor — they started as a more traditional comedian and then started to push the boundaries more and more as they found themselves. I think we learned a lot of that through archival footage of their acts and them just talking to people like Barbara Walters. But it is interesting that at first, and I’m not a professor, but I think you find that across a lot of areas of entertainment, a lot of genres. I was listening to (NPR host) Terry Gross the other day and [she asked] Bruce Springsteen if he ever finds himself thinking, wow, all these people wanna be me. And he said, “I look up and sometimes I want to be that guy on stage. I’m a shy guy that has a stage persona.” Some of the comedians that have a more risqué act like Sarah Silverman, to talk to them about who they are on-stage versus who they are off-stage was super interesting and gives you a whole new respect for their act, their performance, their stage persona and how much they’ll use onstage — who’s a joke-teller, and who’s a Maria-Bamford-sharing-her-life kind of comedian.
The Women in Comedy episode is especially eye-opening, and the timing certainly couldn’t be better to show the struggles of women fighting to be accepted and respected in their line of work. What’s the line you walk in handling a topic such as this that without question deserve the attention, yet doing so without what could be construed as over-analyzing it?
A lot of people have commented in the episode that, isn’t it funny we have to have a “Women in Comedy” episode? I guess I understand that point, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t do it because I think that was a journey. You look at the old footage of stuff on SNL where it was tough for women to get noticed on SNL.
Especially when a male costar was actively trying to hold them back.
Exactly. If I had my druthers, I could do another episode just on women in comedy in the second season, because I think we’ve just barely scratched the surface, and I think great, ground-breaking women comedians need to have more than just a soundbite in another episode.
The History of Comedyairs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on CNN. Episodes will also be available On Demand on cable VOD and on CNNgo via iPad, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire, and desktop at www.cnn.com/go the day after their original network airing.