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Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America Hardcover – Bargain Price, December 2, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kantor, who produced and directed the Emmy-winning Broadway: The American Musical for PBS in 2004, returns with a six-part PBS series on comedy. For this companion book, he teamed with NYU professor Maslon, editor of Library of America's George S. Kaufman collection. Their guide to guffaws and giggles ranges from silent film actors (Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton) to sitcoms (Seinfeld), satire (Mad, SNL) and stand-up comics (George Carlin, Lenny Bruce). Taking a scattershot approach with 60-plus performer profiles and sidebars, the resulting text is sometimes superficial with curious oversights; two decades of radio comedy get squeezed into three pages, so Amos 'n' Andy and Bob and Ray rate only a few paragraphs; Stan Freberg sold millions of records yet is dismissed in a single sentence. With hundreds of fascinating photographs, this book benefits from the TV series' extensive photo research, but what is certain to be a hilarious cascade of clips on PBS is a pratfall in print. (Dec. 2)
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About the Author

Michael Kantor is a writer, director, and producer whose work includes "Quincy Jones: In the Pocket" for American Masters, Cornerstone for HBO, and The West with Ken Burns. Prior to his work in television, Kantor was a freelance theater director and writer, published in Newsday, American Theater, and Interview. He is president of Ghost Light Films and Almo Inc., companies dedicated to bringing the arts to television.

Laurence Maslon is an associate arts professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. With Michael Kantor, he coauthored two episodes of the Broadway series and served as its senior adviser. He also wrote the American Masters biography of Richard Rodgers and edited the Library of America edition of George S. Kaufman's comedies. He lives in New York City and on the North Fork of Long Island.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve (December 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446505315
  • ASIN: B00342VGEA
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.5 x 11.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,125,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Julie Neal VINE VOICE on January 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This big, beautiful book is the companion to the PBS series about what makes Americans laugh. It's not meant to be comprehensive, and it's not. But what is here is fascinating. Filled with photographs, it's easy to open to any page and begin reading. I couldn't put it down.

The book is separated into six chapters that explore different styles of comedy. There is lots of overlap, of course -- Harpo Marx would be at home in the "Oddball" segment, and Jon Stewart is certainly a "Smart-Aleck" -- but this convention makes it easy to put similar comedians together, and focus on why what they do makes us laugh.

There is lots of comedy here. The book is peppered with transcripts of comedy routines and television shows. Quotes from people in the industry, including writers, producers and other comedians, provide insight to what makes performers tick. Rare archival material includes a full page detailing The Sketch That Couldn't Be Done, written by Elaine May for The Smothers Brothers (it was considered in bad taste). If you want to know George Carlin's seven dirty words, they're all here.

In a sweeping book like this, lots will be left out. But I have a few personal peeves. The only mention of one of my favorites, Red Skelton, is to diss him in the segment about Buster Keaton: "(Keaton) spent the next two decades doing what work he could get as an off-camera gagman for stars like Red Skelton, who couldn't hold a candle to Keaton." Animated classic film comedies from Pixar such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo are ignored. And Garry Shandling merits only a mention in the Gilda Radner section, instead of being in a spotlight for The Larry Sanders Show. Worst of all, women are passed over routinely for guys: there are segments on 53 male comedians versus 9 for women.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Richard S. Parker on January 28, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I'll start by admitting that the book is fun. I finished it in two snowy days when schools were closed and, as a public school librarian, I had time on my hands. It covers a lot of ground. But there are real, fundamental, problems. First, the material is a bit centered on the "cult of personality." If the genre of comedy can't be pinned to specific individuals, it doesn't get much attention. The biggest hole in the book is a one-sentence description of screwball comedy. That's it. Where's The Awful Truth, Arsenic and Old Lace, Some Like It Hot, The Philadelphia Story or Twentieth Century? Nowhere! This whole immensely influential and popular genre of comedy never gets its due; indeed, hardly gets a mention. With comedy, it's all a matter of taste. Who's great? Who's merely good? But, a book that gives Lucy three pages and Paul Lynde five has got to be taken with a grain of salt and a certain amount of healthy skepticism has to be applied to the text. And, that brings me to my final point. The authors are a little too free with hyperbolic praise. "Eddie Murphy remains the most successful comedian in American movies" is a statement that ought to be examined very carefully. There are other claims made in the book that should be taken with several large grains of salt. Enjoy the book for what is does present, remind yourself of the work of performers you've enjoyed over the years; but (and this is an ironic thing to say about a book on comedy) don't take the book too seriously.
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Format: Hardcover
This is nearly a perfect compendium of American comedy: A rich collection of gags, snippets, pictures and bios of America's great and (not so great) comedians since the turn of the century. In six short chapters, representing each of six broad categories, these authors cover the history of comedy in reasonable depth, as they remind us of the tight connection between the type of comedy we experience and the changing challenges of American life and culture. That there is a parallel between them should not be surprising, but the tightness with which the parallel exist was a surprise.

From the turn of the century to well into the 20th Century, we had the "slip on the banana peel" gag artists such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx brother, the three Stooges, Lucille Ball, Jerry Lewis, and more recently, Jim Carey.

Then came the "Sock it to me satire and parody artists" - beginning with Will Rogers and ending with Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. Within this category also were included: Sid Caesar, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks and the Waynans Brothers.

W.C. Fields heads up the "Smart Alecks and Wise guys category," with Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy rounding out the field. Then we get the "Nerd and Jerks," with Bob Hope and two of my favorites -- Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams -- among the standouts.

The "Breadwinners and Homemakers category" seems a bit contrived and was a "catchbag" assortment that included: "The Goldbergs," George Burns and Gracie Allen, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, Roseanne, Bill Cosby, Seinfeld and my least favorite comedy show, The Simpsons.
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Format: Hardcover
Loved this book for its panoramic view of comedy as part of America's unique culture dating from the early 20th century. Authors cover not only the icons of laughter but the varying styles and ever-evolving forms through which they communicated - from vaudeville to radio to TV to Broadway and on to cable outlets. This substantial work discusses the major roles comedians have played in parody and social commentary, as only our First Amendment would allow. Authors reveal how comedy and comedians have contributed and reflected back in surprising ways to life, culture and politics in the US.

As co-creator of a satirical microphone named MIKE who lampoons life while reporting on sports, I found this anthology an excellent historical and media-wise study on the power of humor in America's marketplace of ideas. While Make 'Em Laugh does not bring readers into today's era of digital and social media, innovators and entrepreneurs can still glean from this insightful resource while advancing into new entertainment territory.

Great reading for leisure as well as education. Would also make a great coffee table book.
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