MAKE 'EM LAUGH: THE FUNNY BUSINESS OF AMERICA by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor (Twelve), 385 pages, $50 cloth. Rating: NNNN
The PBS series on which this coffee table book about American comedy is based doesn't begin airing until mid-January, but if the online site is any indication (see pbs.org), it should be big fun. More fun than the book, actually.
Authors Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor know that to analyze comedy is to kill it. What they aim to do instead is contextualize American laughmeisters. (And, yes, Canadians like Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Lorne Michaels get their due.)
Rather than organize the book chronologically, they've grouped comics in six categories. This savvy idea highlights the links among slapstick types (like Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Carrey), nerds (Harold Lloyd, Woody Allen, Steve Martin), smart alecks (W.C. Fields, Joan Rivers, Larry David) and, most intriguingly, groundbreakers (Mort Sahl, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce).
The groundbreakers chapter makes for the most fascinating reading. Did you know that Chevy Chase was the first white man to say the n-word to a black man (Pryor) in a national TV comedy sketch? This section prompts the reader to dig a bit deeper, too. How come we don't hear about Mae West any more? Where's the present-day equivalent of raunchy shit disturber Jackie "Moms" Mabley?
Beautifully illustrated, the book's full of sidebars on everything from the history of the comedy album to the depiction of family in American sitcoms.
There are transcripts of comedy routines, classic and lesser-known, like a smart piece Elaine May wrote about censorship that was (how's this for irony?) censored from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Also included is an excerpt from Laura Z. Hobson's infamous 1971 Time Magazine piece about why there wasn't enough bigotry in All In The Family, followed by some telling responses.
Of course, contemporary comics like Dave Chappelle and Sarah Silverman barely get a mention, but after reading this book you'll see their acts in a new context. Let's hope they show up in the series - without being bleeped.