One of the great things about comedy is, it demands so little effort to enjoy. Grins and guffaws can seem to issue directly from a tickled funny bone.
On the other hand, prolonged analysis of humor can kill the joke.
But not always, as CNN demonstrates with “The History of Comedy,” a docuseries that keeps the funny in the fundamentals of the comedy it probes.
Including among its executive producers Sean Hayes (who boasts such comedy credits as the hit sitcom “Will & Grace”), the series’ eight weekly hours burst with information, as well as laughter. It’s like a college course, if college weren’t just smart, but also really funny.
The series starts with a bang Thursday with “F---ing Funny” (it’s CNN blanking out those three letters), an episode that gets a little naughty.
Yes, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce get much-deserved credit as the episode traces the evolution of risque humor and recalls the risks and retribution that plagued the groundbreaking humorists who flouted social standards in the name of free speech.
They were going for more than giggles.
“I’m searching for an answer,” says Bruce, the oft-oppressed, oft-jailed shock comic — “as Billy Graham is.”
Much of Bruce’s act a half-century ago was thought to break the rules. But on the contrary, his mission was to change them.
“ ‘Off limits’ is not a permanent address,” notes comic Patton Oswalt. “It’s just a marker. It keeps getting moved.”
Living up to its billing as history, this hour reaches all the way back to the early 1900s to recall the parallel emergence of vaudeville and burlesque — and explain the difference. (Among its store of fun facts is the origin of the term “blue” as a synonym for vulgar or racy. Watch and learn.)
Future episodes look at political humor, topical comedy, comedy in race and culture, and comedy gleaned from everyday life.
Yet another episode shines a light on the dark side of comedy, citing examples of the personal cost of being funny that include Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman.
The episode on women in comedy celebrates the distaff drollery of Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley and Joan Rivers. But it also remembers their largely forgotten sister pioneer Jean Carroll, who enjoyed fame as a standup in the 1950s.
Comedy — which is sometimes easily dismissed as a monolithic force — is actually vast in its scope.
“It was an overwhelming net to cast,” said Hayes, who, daring to look ahead, added hopefully, “We could see doing many more seasons.”
‘The History of Comedy’
10 p.m. Thursday
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