11/19/2011 01:55 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2012

Woody and Jerry: Docs Celebrate Comic Genius

Timing, of course, is everything. So it's interesting that, in the space of a couple of weeks, we'll be seeing documentaries about two of the major comic geniuses of the last half of the 20th century.

Sunday (11/20/11) and Monday (11/21/11), PBS's American Masters series will broadcast Woody Allen: A Documentary, an all-encompassing look at the life and career of the filmmaker, still-thriving at 75.

And then, on Dec. 17, the Encore network will air Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, a career retrospective of the 85-year-old comic dynamo.

If you look at comedy in the 20th century, the list of those whose work has depth, breadth and longevity is a small one: Charlie Chaplin, Lewis, Allen. Each broke the mold, charted the path, set the standard and maintained the quality over a long period of time.

It's particularly startling in Woody Allen: A Documentary, when you realize that Allen has made a movie a year since 1969. It's an astonishing output, made all the more amazing when you consider how few duds there are among the 40 theatrical features he has written and directed, beginning with "Take the Money and Run."

Director Robert Weide, a producer-director on Curb Your Enthusiasm, gets Allen to sit and talk: about his childhood, his early years in stand-up comedy, his approach to film-making, even (to a limited extent) his headline-making breakup with Mia Farrow and involvement with Soon-Yi Previn. (Allen observes that he didn't think he was famous enough to attract that kind of media frenzy.)

Weide also talks to Allen's sister/producer Letty Aronson and his various collaborators -- from writers Marshall Brickman, Doug McGrath and Mickey Rose to casting director Juliet Taylor and cinematographer Gordon Willis. And, of course, we hear from his stars: everyone from Louise Lasser to Diane Keaton, from Tony Roberts and Diane Wiest to Larry David and Scarlett Johannson.

But what's amazing is the sheer breadth of the work that Allen has done. He's created a filmography that's heavy on titles that can rightly be considered classics and very light on out-and-out duds. Even the films that don't work (including failed comedies like Anything Else and serious films like Another Woman) show Allen stretching and testing himself. While he has a style, he's not repetitive or safe. Even minor films (Celebrity, Hollywood Ending) offer major laughs and surprising insight.

More to the point, he's still capable of finding new ways of expressing himself and reaching an audience with comedy and drama that's hard to resist. Look at his output of the last 10 years, a period when he's made Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris and eight other films.

Those three films alone would be enough to vault most directors into the stratosphere; for Woody Allen, it's business as usual, even as he deals with critics who feel he's lost his touch, makes too many movies or that, as I've heard some critics say, they're simply "over" him. Woody Allen: A Documentary shows a man still questing, working - and achieving (though his intensely self-critical nature keeps him from truly enjoying the output).

Gregg Barson's Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis is similarly fascinating, in a very different way.

This commentary continues on my website.