Twelve, 2008, 383 pages, C$50.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-50531-4
Tie-in books don’t have a very good reputation: They’re often seen as schlocky derivative products, churned on tight deadlines and little inspiration by writers needing the money, the result selling on the basis of something else (“Seen the movie? Buy the novelization!”). But Laurence Maslon & Michael Kantor’s Make’em Laugh is an entirely different kind of book. It’s gorgeous, detailed and presents a compelling history of comedy in America. Based on the 2009 PBS series of the same name, which attempted to describe the history of American comedy in six hour-long episodes, the book has the luxury of packing much more detail in nearly 400 superbly-designed pages.
Presented in oversized hardcover format, Make’em Laugh at first looks like a particularly thick coffee-table book filled with illustrations, a strong structure and short texts. But look closer, because there is a lot of content here. The book is divided in six sections meant to present an overview of the different kinds of comedy in the cultural American landscape: The Knockabouts (physical comedy); Satire and Parody; Smart Alecks and Wiseguys; Nerds, Jerks, Oddballs and Slackers; Bread-Winners and Homemakers; and, finally, The Groundbreakers. Every section is introduced by a general essay, and then divided in a series of artist profiles, detailing the career, humor and influence of comedians ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Bill Maher. The profiles take up from three to six pages, mixing a life narrative of the artist, best-known jokes and a generous number of photographs. Additional material discusses various comedy venues such as radio, Catskills Mountain resorts, vaudeville and comedy albums. You can certainly read Make’em Laugh as a coffee table book, dipping in and out of profiles as the day goes by, but it will take you a while.
At the end, though, Make’em Laugh offers a convincing overview of American comedy in the twentieth century. Reading profile after profile, you get an impressive sense of some people’s careers (You mean that this George Burns is also that George Burns?!), learn fascinating historical trivial (Mel Brooks fought in World War 2?) and also, more importantly, get to understand the place of comedy in the development of American self-expression. This never becomes more important than in discussing “The Groundbreakers” which, from Mae West to Lenny Bruce to Richard Prior to George Carlin, were often undistinguishable from civil rights activist and first-amendment warriors.
There’s also the sense that, by spanning the ages from vaudeville to the web, Make’em Laugh offers a few clues as to the development of pop-culture in the US during an entire century. Reading accounts of Will Rogers or Bob Hope (among many others) is getting a glimpse in the cultural obsessions of a nation’s history, and some of the trappings of popular fame in the early twentieth century look suspiciously like the celebrity culture of today.
As good as Make’em Laugh can be, its reading experience can be improved by modern tools: Savvy readers will bring the book close to an internet-enabled device, and search YouTube for relevant clips as they come across mentions in the text. You could also watch the original series but isn’t it more fun to go down the rabbit hole of funny video clips?
Now available on bookstores’ discount tables all around the continent, Make’em Laugh is a fine purchase for anyone even remotely interested in cultural history, comedy or simply an entertaining read. The authors never forget to slip in representative jokes, and make their cultural history easy enough to read. When you’re done with the book, leave it on your coffee table to share the fun with guests.