Comedy Docs Among 2022 Emmy Contenders – The Hollywood Reporter

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Multiple documentary Emmy contenders this season turn their focus on the people who have made us laugh — and the complicated legacies of their place in comedy history. Four doc titles examine the careers and controversies of stand-ups George Carlin and Bill Cosby, Canadian sketch troupe the Kids in the Hall and I Love Lucy stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Here’s what The Hollywood Reporter’s critics had to say about each.

George Carlin both transcended and changed the parameters of his chosen profession. It’s been nearly 14 years since Carlin died, but based on his continued social media ubiquity, his words have lived on and remained crazily specific, as if every unanticipatable catastrophe of human culture was somehow anticipated by only one man. On any given day, whether the trending topic relates to reproductive rights or environmental disaster or political hypocrisy or the power of free speech, one subset of fans is lamenting that we’ll never know what George Carlin would have said about the news du jour, while another set is posting the blistering stand-up set that illustrates exactly what George Carlin did say about that topic.

That Carlin left behind countless hours of clearly articulated, increasingly irritated expressions of his worldview doesn’t change the most persuasive aspect of Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s documentary — namely that Carlin was a protean embodiment of the country that spawned him. Not only did Carlin’s life have a second act, but he had a third and fourth act, and the comic he was in the mid-’90s and ’00s almost surely wasn’t the comic he would have been today. Which makes the documentary simultaneously a celebration and a tragedy.

Like many a key figure in the explosion of in-home media, Carlin’s path was well-documented at every stretch, and the directors here are able to weave together audio from his radio days and various talk show and variety show appearances to emphasize the differences and common threads. Carlin’s look might have shifted dramatically, but the versatility and careful calibration of his delivery and his fascination with comedic linguistics was there from the beginning. The very best parts of George Carlin’s American Dream involve his fans in the stand-up world — that would be nearly every comic who ever lived, represented here by the likes of Steven Wright, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, Robert Klein and more — breaking down the nuances of Carlin’s performance, not just his subject matter. Read the full review here. — Daniel Fienberg

A straightforward introduction to a far-from-ordinary comedy troupe, Reg Harkema’s The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks will leave old fans wondering where they put their DVDs and newcomers wondering how they haven’t heard of these guys; let the rabbit-hole viewing commence. Though peppered with lots of photos and clips fans haven’t seen, rapid-fire editing ensures we nearly never see enough for a rare clip’s humor to land — instead, the montage persuasively conjures the camaraderie and creative enthusiasm we all wanted to believe in: Yes, these guys were great friends while they were transforming comedy. Then they weren’t. Now they are again.

The film opens in Calgary, 1981, where Bruce McCulloch met Mark McKinney on stage at an improv event at a club called the Loose Moose. Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald met similarly in Toronto the next year. Both pairs met while participating in Theatresports, a Canadian-born brand of competitive theater the film doesn’t think it needs to explain. The latter pair felt an instant “comedy chemistry” they compare to falling in love. On the spot, McDonald recalls, “I asked [Foley] to join my troupe. And I didn’t have a troupe.” So one had to be created.

Gelling as a quartet and giving themselves a name (a reference to aspiring comedy writers trying to sell gags to an established star), they attracted a fifth member who hadn’t intended to be a comedian: Scott Thompson, whose openness about being gay would become a big part of their identity, had hoped to become a serious actor. “I wanted to be James Dean,” he recalls; instead he would be Buddy Cole, the louche raconteur whose flamboyance would divide both straight and gay viewers of the group’s TV series. Read the full review here.  —John DeFore

Among the rich selection of stills and footage in the unexpectedly affecting Lucy and Desi, there’s an image that might strike you with its likeness to the film’s director, Amy Poehler. The photo captures Lucille Ball, in one of her daffier getups, beaming at the camera: a wide-eyed, beautiful clown. More than 70 years after I Love Lucy transformed the airwaves, many people working in television can trace their inspiration to that trailblazing sitcom and its beloved stars. But Poehler brings a particularly powerful sense of connection and understanding to her debut documentary. Like Ball, she’s a funny woman with serious clout in the TV business. And she knows a thing or two about being part of a famous comedy couple whose marriage ended in divorce.

With an insider’s perspective and access to Ball and Arnaz’s archives, Poehler zeros in on a showbiz love story. Beyond the pair’s romantic bond, there’s a postwar nation’s infatuation with them. The film celebrates outsize talent while taking stock of something much quieter, an ache that isn’t necessarily remedied or even calmed by professional accomplishment. And like the Martin doc, which relies on the insights of one of his daughters, Lucy and Desi spends quality time with Arnaz and Ball’s firstborn, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill. She offers searching and incisive testimony about her parents’ marriage and intertwined careers, citing “a cost to the success.” Her description of their final conversation, decades after they were each remarried, is wrenching in its simplicity.

Lucy and Desi covers a lot of ground, but Poehler’s aim isn’t a comprehensive career roundup. Above all, the filmmaker is interested in the connection between them. It’s not just the spark that ignited small-screen magic but the affection and respect that outlived the sitcom, the marriage and the mighty business partnership, Desilu Studios. For a while it was the world’s largest independent TV production company. It ultimately played a role in pulling them apart, and they built it on the old RKO lot where they first met. Read the full review here.— Sheri Linden

W. Kamau Bell isn’t exactly an investigative journalist and he isn’t exactly a dirt-digging muckraker, and the case of Bill Cosby doesn’t really require such a specialist. Cosby has been accused of sexual assault by more than 60 women, he was convicted in one of the cases and the fact that he is a free man today is a product of a legal technicality and not, in any way, an exoneration. If you require “proof” of Bill Cosby’s crimes, We Need to Talk About Cosby won’t be a documentary for you, though it features extended and reasonably graphic accounts of Cosby violations from several of his accusers.

The documentary is designed to instigate a conversation and not to build a case, which gives Bell a very different responsibility. We Need to Talk About Cosby doesn’t contain the now-standard “We went out to [Insert Accused Pariah Here] for comment and were ignored or declined or whatever” disclaimer. You won’t see any key cast members from The Cosby Show, nor is Bell trying to work his way down a list of A-list Black comedians influenced by Cosby. The agenda is “Who is prepared to talk to me in an interesting way?” not “Who are the biggest names I can get in order to grab clickbait headlines?”

The point that Bell and his experts want to make is that without establishing how beloved and, more than that, trusted Bill Cosby was, you can’t fully understand how he was able to do what he allegedly did for so long. And if you can’t make clear his position of righteousness and rectitude, you can’t understand both why it was so hard for some people to believe those stories. Read the full review here. — D.F.

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