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Make 'Em Laugh examines comedy greats

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Too often, books created to accompany major PBS documentary series make a crucial mistake: They try to reproduce the series, using still pictures and text. With a couple of notable exceptions (Ken Burns' The War and Lewis and Clark), it rarely works, and what had promised to be great coffee table books turn into dust collectors bound for the used bookstore. Fortunately, the authors of Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America took a different approach.

Let's back up a bit. In January, PBS will broadcast Make 'Em Laugh, a 6-hour series about American comedy of the last century. The series, which promises to be extraordinarily wide-ranging, especially considering its time constraints, will be divided into six hour-long episodes. Series creator Michael Kantor (who produced and directed PBS' Emmy-winning Broadway: The American Musical) decided not to move chronologically through the years from, say, Laurel and Hardy to Chris Rock. Instead, he divided American comedy into six genres. "I was afraid if we broke it down by decade, it would get predictable," Kantor says. "With comedy, we wanted to have more surprise."

Here's how Make 'Em Laugh breaks down:

Episode One, "The Knockabouts," features masters of physical humor including, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Harpo Marx, The Three Stooges and Jim Carrey. Episode Two, "Satire and Parody," takes in everything from Will Rogers through Laugh-In and The Daily Show. Three, "Smart-Alecks and Wiseguys," showcases the likes of Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, the great Tim Moore ("Kingfish" from Amos 'n' Andy), and Larry David. Four, "Nerds, Jerks, Oddballs and Slackers," highlights everyone from Harold Lloyd and Bob Hope to Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters and Andy Kaufman. Five, "Breadwinners and Homemakers," looks at sitcoms through the ages, from radio's The Goldbergs and early television's George Burns and Gracie Allen to Seinfeld and The Simpsons. Finally, Episode Six explores "Groundbreakers" (i.e., artists who got into trouble for their language and attitudes) such as Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and, of course, George Carlin.

The series features tons of classic clips, interviews with performers, and a cast of knowledgeable talking heads to provide context; all in all, Make 'Em Laugh promises to be a great mix of comedy, biography and American history.

The only problem with the series is that it has too much ground to cover in too short a time. (Yes, six hours is a long series, but trying to fit all of American comedy of the last century into six hours? Come on.) That's where the accompanying book comes in. Lucky for us, the authors -- Kantor and Laurence Maslon, editor of Library of America's George S. Kaufman collection -- made their book into a solid, entertaining addition to the series. The pair realized how quickly a comedy routine deflates when it's merely described, so they took a different approach. Instead of replicating the series, they created a font of extra information about America's greatest comedians' lives and art, and made the book a source of additional insight into those artists' work -- not to mention a storehouse for hundreds of great photos. The book's widely varied chapters contain unexpected surprises, such as a series of essays on early developments in American comedy including vaudeville and radio comedies, or a well-told reminder of the explosive and important role played by All In The Family in the evolution of sitcoms. There are also several moving chapters on the private struggles of some comic actors, including Gilda Radner, Chaplin, and Mae West. Perhaps none of the stories are more poignant, or odd, than that of Paul Lynde, a supremely sardonic, gay comic actor who did relatively well in theater and films during a still-closeted era, but wound up doing some of his funniest work as a perpetual guest on the Hollywood Squares game show.

Kantor structured the TV series and the book differently, but he says they both share the same purpose: to reveal truths about particular places and times by examining, and celebrating, what enchanted its audiences. Kantor explains that he hopes "to show how our greatest comedians have reflected America's social climate ... In the same way you can learn about the state of the country by the song, 'Brother, can you spare a dime?' or the musical Hair, you can learn about the Great Depression or Mae West's era by the jokes they were telling."

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