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DVD Review: Comic Relief: The Greatest … and the Latest

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These are the Confessions of a tardy reviewer. Months ago I promised to review the two DVD set Comic Relief: The Greatest … and the Latest, and I had a terrible time bringing myself to do it.

I have a friend who wonders why people write negative reviews. If you don't have anything nice to say, why say anything at all? Aside from the fact that it's a reviewer's job to point out when something is not worth the time, I kind of agree with her, which is why I have not written my review of the DVD set before now: I don't have much nice to say.

I confess, I am not much for watching stand-up comedy on television. When I see comics on Comedy Central, for instance, I rarely think they're very funny. The people in the audience always seem to be having a much better time than I am. I believe there are two explanations for this. One, laughter is contagious, so the jokes seem funnier when you are watching a show live and the people around you are laughing. Two, alcohol. Things are so much funnier when you've have had a few.

So why did I volunteer to review a collection of stand-up comedy? Hope springs eternal; I naively thought I'd find a "best of" collection to be funny. 

I'm afraid I didn't. While I found co-host Robin Williams' irrepressible improv hilarious at times (his obsession with his genitalia is a theme that runs throughout the years), most of the acts did not make me laugh. Historians of the comedy business and fans of Comic Relief and the stand-up genre should be delighted with this collection. If you must own everything Robin Williams or co-hosts Whoopie Goldberg and Billy Crystal have ever done, then go for it. If you are a casual comedy viewer, well, your attendance is not required.

From the sociological standpoint, the collection is kind of interesting, a bit of a time capsule. What did people wear and what the hell did they do with their hair? What were they talking about at the time? That's a part of the problem, though. Much comedy turns on current events, both large and small. What was funny in the mid-1980's does not necessarily remain relevant 20 years later. One exception was Chris Rock's appearance in 1998. His riff on the impeachment of President Clinton was an inspired bit of truth-telling enveloped in invectives and remains as sharp a critique of the event as you'll find. But then, it was only ten years ago, and I remember how I felt about the impeachment very clearly. The relevance of Rock's set for me, then, is a product of the amount of time passing (not as much) and how big the news was (international).

Comic Relief was a series of benefit shows, and a part of what makes benefit shows work is the emotion of the moment. I'm sure most of America was transfixed when the 9/11 telethon America: a Tribute to Heroes aired, but watching it now would be a different experience altogether. A part of allure is watching famous people donate their time to a cause and being able to participate in that cause as a viewer. When watching a compilation DVD, there's no way to be involved. And the DVD does a poor job of putting the causes in political or chronological context.

In fact, producer Shout! Factory did not add much to help the viewer. The first DVD, with highlights of shows from 1986-1998, does nothing to guide you when watching start to finish. There are no cues when it moves from one year to the next; for this, you need the main menu, which offers you chapter selections and a performer index. The chapter selection tells you the name of each show and the year they aired. The performer index tells you whose appearances you will find in each show. But the two don't interact; you can't select a name and then go to the performance; you just have to keep track of who appeared when and hope you will recognize them when they appear.

The second DVD has nearly the complete show for 2006, which was staged to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and rebuild New Orleans. This DVD's chapters are actually an index of performances that allows you to choose which ones to watch. The "extras" are parts of the telethon left out of the main presentation on the DVD: non-comedy stories about New Orleans, Billy Crystal's tribute to the city, Wayne Brady's improv rap song from a stage in New Orleans, and the introduction of celebrities involved in "Comic Relief Wild," the next planned show. (After a cursory search of the web, I could not verify that this show has ever taken place.) I guess if you only want to watch comedians, some of the "extras" would make you impatient. But they are just parts of the show that were cut from the main sequence. I think it would have been fine to include them and actually provide some traditional DVD extras, like interviews or behind-the-scenes footage, both of which are completely lacking.

So, in my opinion, only Comic Relief devotees and historians of humor need apply for watching these DVDs. I would love to know if someone most devoted to the form of stand-up comedy would disagree. Actually, I hope they would. Someone should say something nice.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.
  • I could say a lot of nice things about stand-up and the Comic Relief set – there’s a fair amount of great material there for people who do enjoy stand-up.

    But I want to correct a factual error about your assumption as to why the audiences are laughing at the specials you see on Comedy Central. For most of the Comedy Central produced specials there is no alcohol served. (Other specials perhaps, but it’s still less than you’re assuming.) Alcohol isn’t necessarily much of a factor for why they’re laughing.

    I can’t speak for an entire crowd, but at many of the stand-up shows I’ve attended – both for and not for broadcast – there are people laughing and there are people not laughing. People are a lot less sheeplike that you’d think about laughter. It’s a visceral response that’s hard to fake. The ones who are laughing are doing it because they’re having a good time.

    I can understand assuming that an audience might be a little off in some way if they’re enjoying something you do not – a particular movie or TV show. But if you’re making that generalization about audiences of an entire genre or art form (i.e. stand-up), the asusmption should be that that genre or art form is not for you.

    In other words, stand-up may not be your bag. Nothing wrong with that. It just ain’t your thing.