Dollars for Laughs: 4 Outstanding Comedy DVD Sets

Does anyone still think comedy is trivial? Humans need laughter almost as much as sleep and food, and from Aristophanes to Jon Stewart, comedians have been consistently among our most profound thinkers and communicators. They expose deep emotional truths, dissect critical social issues, and deflate the rich and powerful. Comedy also quite literally trains people how to think. 

And it feels good. In case you're looking for a last-minute gift of laughter, here are four favorites. 

The funniest TV you've never heard of. Ken Finkleman is the Canadian Garry Shandling. Narcissism, cynicism, and best bran muffin scene ever. 

If you don't know about Larry Sanders, you are one lucky s.o.b. Hours and hours of hilarity await you. Finally, the whole thing has been released. 

Phil Hartman was truly one of the greats. He did some terrific work on SNL, but this series really allowed him to flex his muscles. And the rest of the ensemble cast--Dave Foley, Maura Tierney, Khandi Alexander, Stephen Root, Vicki Lewis, Andy Dick, Joe Rogan--not a weak link. These guys are operating on a lot of levels, and it's no wonder that it didn't really attract a wide following on network TV. It was too damned smart. 

You might want to forego the complete series here, for two reasons. First Hartman never made it to the last season. He was killed in May 1998. Second, people complain that the "slim" packaging is literally discs without cases, easily scratched. So here are seasons 1-4, individually: Seasons 1&2Season 3Season 4.

It's odd, but this extraordinary show is both dated and timeless. Almost everything about the dialogue, plots, costumes, and sets are superglued to the early 1970s. The jokes too. Humor is contextual, and additive. In general, today's sitcoms are, in many ways, several layers more sophisticated than sitcoms from the '70s* because they are constructed on top of them, like floors of a building. But sometimes the simpler versions are done so well, with so much intelligence and humanity, that it's like breathing in the freshest air or drinking the cleanest glass of water. That's what watching MTM feels like in 2010.

* This doesn't mean the new ones are better than the old ones. You can build a crappy version of a sophisticated edifice.
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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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