For us Americans, it goes without saying that American comedy can fulfill needed distractions and take the sting out of a miserable day with just a few laughs. If we take a page out of Patch Adam’s book, comedy can even heal. That’s because America’s funny people have the uncanny ability to speak to the intimate familiar bonds that tie us together as Americans.
Make’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America explores the last century of American comedy through a six-episode series that aired on PBS in mid-January. Rhino Entertainment brings the entire series to three DVDs in one comprehensive box set. Each disc features two episodes and each segment is hosted by veteran funny man Billy Crystal and narrated by Amy Sedaris. Each episode of Make’Em Laugh does a fine job of compartmentalizing major aspects of American comedy, ranging from silent pictures with Charlie Chaplin to today’s satirical programs like The Daily Show. The hour-long episodes may be too short for any student of comedy that wants to seriously focus on one particular facet. The casual observer, however, will definitely have a good time and benefit from this thoughtful collection of America’s bravest and funniest comedians.
From the very beginning, Make’Em Laugh sets the perfect tone to put viewers in good humor. Writer and director Michael Kantor wisely disguises the first episode as a middle part to a dry, black and white historical film and Billy Crystal’s deadpan voiceover is the perfect accomplice, lulling viewers into warm confused acceptance until the joke is sprung. With that kind of setup, it’s easy to get totally engrossed learning about the different epochs of American comedy and revisiting the moments that made us laugh.
The series is organized into six categories: three that represent comedic genres and three that represent archetypal characters. The genres are physical comedy, satire and parody, and sitcoms. The character types are wiseguys, oddballs and avant-garde comedians. Along with the host and narrator, the viewers’ journey is also guided by contemporary and historical interviews with famous comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Jonathan Winters and many more. The editing together of the separate interviews is very well done and seamless throughout, but more important is the content of what’s said. These comedians aren’t simply regurgitating an old act or reliving their primes. Instead, they speak as reverent witnesses to the great comics that made history before them who then inspired them to make history themselves. In short, this documentary is a wonderfully dense history lesson of something so ubiquitous in today’s society.
After viewing the entire series, it’s still difficult to explain exactly what makes American comedy unique except in very general terms. America’s comedy is diverse and truly free. All walks of life come to this country, sharing their cultures, their opinions and thoughts that challenge the status quo. Fortunately for them, America also offers the comedic freedom to truly express themselves. And while American comedy cannot be defined in certain terms, Make’Em Laugh will definitely succeed in revealing to younger generations that there was a time when comedy was performed by talented people and that it was far better than today’s “reality television” and Youtube videos full of easy marks all too eager to hurt or humiliate themselves. Make’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America pays tribute to the great American clowns, comics and comedians and any admirer of scripted comedy should add this compilation to their collection.