Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny
Business of America

Genre by genre, producer of Broadway serves up comedy’s greats

Originally published in Current, Nov. 5, 2007
By Jeremy Egner

The writer and humorist E.B. White once said analyzing humor was like dissecting a frog. “Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.”

Producer Michael Kantor took White’s words to heart while crafting his sweeping comedy survey, Make ’Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, which eschews tedious analysis and simply exposes viewers to a historical cavalcade of comedy styles and their preeminent practitioners.

The film, produced by Kantor’s Ghost Light Films and New York’s WNET, will be a six-hour, six-part HD doc series slated for fall 2008.

It will mix performance clips, including some old ones, with interviews of 60 funny folks who try to put the jokes and pratfalls in their cultural contexts.

“Think of it like a joke — you have the setup and the payoff,” says Kantor, who also wrote and directed  Make ’Em Laugh. The interviews and framing material function as the setup, he says, creating a context in which old punchlines are made funny for contemporary audiences.

In the process, the doc reveals bits of American social and cultural history. 

Kantor took a similar approach to musical comedy in 2004’s Emmy Award-winning Broadway: The American Musical, also produced by Ghost Light and WNET. That film, also a six-parter, tracked audience tastes, trends and creative innovations though the decades to capture the ebb and flow of Broadway’s fortunes.

Make ’Em Laugh doesn’t move chronologically from from vaudeville to Jon Stewart but divides its subject by genre, with episodes on physical comedy, satire and parody and sitcoms, among other topics. “I was afraid if we broke it down by decade, it would get predictable,” Kantor says. “With comedy, we wanted to have more surprise.”

Kantor may have structured the comedy and musical projects differently, but his purpose was the same. He believes fundamental truths about a particular place and time can be revealed by examining what delighted its audiences.

“In the same way you can learn about the state of the country by the song, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?’ or the musical Hair,” he says, “you can learn about the Great Depression or Mae West’s era by the jokes they were telling.”

Make ’Em Laugh will use the Broadway formula “to show how our greatest comedians have reflected America’s social climate,” says David Horn, e.p. for WNET.

Kantor talked to Cheech Marin and Dick Gregory about making their careers as a comics of color during decades when the majority ruled most bookings. He spoke with Bill Maher about another lonely task — trying to tell jokes in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Of course, the subject being comedy, not every interview was so weighty. Dick Van Dyke talked about meeting his hero, Stan Laurel (of Laurel & Hardy), and excitedly telling him how much he had emulated him in his act and sitcom work.

“I know,” Laurel deadpanned.

Other interviewees include Lily Tomlin, Sid Caesar, the Smothers Brothers and George Carlin.

Speaking of Carlin, it’s tough to do a proper comedy doc without dipping into some blue material. “I don’t want to censor these guys,” Kantor says. WNET will handle that part of it. The station will make two versions of the doc available to stations—one uncensored and one that requires an instant’s guesswork.

Make ’Em Laugh received funding by CPB, PBS, the National Endowment for the Arts, among others, who saw serious cultural merit in a series that would be laughed at. “It will be history,” Horn promises, “and it will be hysterical.”

Web page posted Dec. 6, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

Michael Kantor

Kantor says his look at past comedians will illuminate U.S. history. (Photo: Joe Sinnott, WNET.)


In '04, Kantor had PBS's hot ticket of the season: Broadway, a history of the musical.


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