Make 'Em Laugh

Wed, 01/14/2009 - 8:00pm

Host Billy Crystal

Joseph Sinnott, Thirteen/WNET New York

Did you hear the one about PBS airing a comedy series? It’s no joke, but it is funny. Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, a six-hour comedy epic, airing Wednesdays, January 14-28 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1), showcases the most hilarious men, women and moments in American entertainment and why they made us laugh. Hosted by funnyman Billy Crystal and narrated by Amy Sedaris, the documentary explores the currents of American comedy throughout a century of social and political change, illuminating how comedy has tackled and poked fun at our political system, race relations, gender issues and the prevailing American standards and taboos in everyday life.

Melding performance, biography and history, Make 'Em Laugh features interviews with more than 90 comedians, writers, producers and historians, including Judd Apatow, Roseanne Barr, Anne Beatts, the Smothers Brothers, Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar, George Carlin, Larry David, Will Ferrell, Leonard Maltin, Cheech Marin, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Mort Sahl, Dick Van Dyke and many, many more.

Each one-hour episode focuses on a distinct genre of American comedy — from the most ingenious physical schtick to those fast-talking wiseguys to incisive satire and parody — re-acquainting viewers with some of their favorite classics. Crystal introduces each episode.

Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses? Nerds, Jerks, & Oddballs airs Wednesday, January 14 at 8 p.m. While America, a country of immigrants, has always championed the idea of inclusiveness, the outsider has been a source of constant amusement. Perhaps best epitomized today by characters in such blockbuster Judd Apatow comedies as The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad, this episode also looks back at the bespectacled wannabe (Harold Lloyd) and the vain coward (Bob Hope) as the outsiders of their day. Along with pioneering women in comedy like Phyllis Diller and truly zany characters who seem to have arrived from another planet (Jonathan Winters, Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams), the great social upheaval of the 60s and 70s introduced counter-culture favorites Cheech & Chong, as well as superstar nerds like Woody Allen and jerks like Steve Martin — who ultimately became so popular that the idea of the outsider had to be re-cast.

Honey, I’m Home! Breadwinners and Homemakers airs Wednesday, January 14 at 9 p.m. The domestic comedy may be the most American of comic concepts. The moment that Burns and Allen admitted to their radio audience that they were a married couple, a tradition of laughter on the home front began. Groundbreaking television sitcoms like The Goldbergs, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Seinfeld and The Simpsons reflect the ongoing changes at home and in the workplace. Sitcoms continue to be a consistently humorous barometer of American gender roles and attitudes toward racism and politics.

Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts airs Wednesday, January 21 at 8 p.m. Physical comedy and slapstick have always found rich soil in America. From the mastery of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the computer-generated antics that helped transform Jim Carrey into a human cartoon, slapstick has evolved into a sophisticated art, stretching the boundaries of time and space. This episode explores the comic genius of teams like Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Martin and Lewis and the Marx Brothers, and the one and only Lucille Ball.

When I’m Bad, I’m Better: The Groundbreakers airs Wednesday, January 21 at 9 p.m. In the ongoing war against hypocrisy, conservatism, political correctness, prejudice, prudery, censorship, sentimentality, liberalism, extremism and complacency, it was always the comedian who led the first wave of attack. Rather than using risqué jokes and four letter words simply to get a rise out of an audience, the most audacious comedians — from pioneers like Mae West and Moms Mabley to 60s and 70s bad boys like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin — invoked what the First Amendment to the American Constitution calls “freedom of speech” to bring the biggest and most dangerous laughs to the American public.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: The Wiseguys airs Wednesday, January 28 at 8 p.m. America loves the wiseguy who defies convention by speaking the truth no matter the consequences. Whether in the form of the curmudgeonly W.C. Fields of the 1930s or today’s Larry David, who manages to perturb everyone within reach, the wiseguy (or gal) always gets the last — and funniest — word. Along with classic smart-alecks like Groucho Marx and con men like Phil Silvers, other legendary names in this episode’s “Wiseguy Hall of Fame” include Jack Benny, Paul Lynde, Joan Rivers, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.

Sock it to Me? Satire and Parody airs Wednesday, January 28 at 9 p.m. Americans have always loved to make fun of the world around them using the slings and arrows of parody and satire. Whether it was Will Rogers, Johnny Carson, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert poking a finger in the eye of the government, or Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and the Saturday Night Live gang lampooning the latest blockbuster, generations have reveled in the anarchic tradition of mocking American life, politics and preoccupations.

The Make 'Em Laugh Web site will showcase extended interviews with the comedians featured in the series, and contain other content to supplement the broadcast. In addition, the Web site will feature original video content with a “Seventh Episode” exploring the world of online comedy in today’s internet era. The original videos online will feature a panel of comedians currently working in online mediums discussing comedy as American culture progresses further into the digital age. What makes comedy successful online? What new jokes are being developed in these interactive media? What’s a “meme” and what makes a video “viral”? These online original videos will seek to answer these questions and more.