Behind the laughter

They say that timing is everything in comedy. What “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America” (Twelve: 384 pp., $45) makes clear is what a time and place 20th century America was for the art. In this chock-full-of-photos volume, authors Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor don’t peddle nostalgia as much as aim to enlighten.

This kaleidoscopic time machine is broken into six broad categories: the exaggerated physical movements of slapstick (think Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball); satire and parody ( Mel Brooks, Tom Lehrer); and domestic comedy (Burns and Allen, “The Simpsons”) -- as well as delineations of three character types: wiseguy ( Jack Benny, Eddie Murphy); the outsider ( Harold Lloyd, Andy Kaufman); and groundbreakers ( Mae West, Richard Pryor) make up the framework of this wide-ranging volume.

What these groupings help remind us is that American comedians have always pushed the envelope and that comedy has been one very powerful way to help immigrants and social outsiders assimilate. Not only were ethnic groups able to laugh comfortably among themselves, but the wider populace was able to relate to others on a more comfortable level. "[E]very generation and every new ethnic arrival to our shores absorbs the genre and adds to its complexion, evolution, and tradition,” the authors write.

Comedy has also helped us cope with an uncertain world, as in the 1960s, with its social upheavals and fear of nuclear war: “Perhaps because the real world was so complicated and confusing, the situation comedy ventured out into some very odd territory. The weirdest fringes of pop culture moved into the neighborhood”: That would be nothing less than Martians, talking horses, vampires, genies and witches. If we could handle them, we could certainly handle pressing Earth-bound problems.

What makes the character studies come alive are the extensive interviews. (Kantor conducted more than a hundred for the companion PBS series he produced and directed airing in January). Especially interesting are those on comics by fellow comics and the tidbits from behind-the-scenes players.

One of the overriding themes here is how important comedy is. Just as was the medieval court jester, the comedian can be seen as keeper of larger societal truths: “The battle against censorship is always going on,” says Tommy Smothers. “And the greatest danger is we start to anticipate it and start to censor ourselves in the name of staying on the straight and narrow.” Something to think about, for all stripes of the political spectrum, in these times.

-- Orli Low