Companion book to PBS series on comedy tackles funnybone anatomy

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It was October 2004. Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor were brainstorming, tossing around ideas for a new project to follow up their success with “Broadway: The American Musical,” a PBS-TV series directed by Mr. Kantor with a handsome hard-cover companion book by Mr. Maslon.

“It was right before the 2004 election,” recalled Mr. Maslon in a recent interview. “The country was very polarized. Everyone was talking about red states and blue states.”

When had that happened, they wondered. “Surely,” suggested Mr. Maslon, a part-time resident of the East End, “there was a time when everybody laughed at the same things in America.”

And right there they had the germ for their next project.

Proceeding from the assumption that different cultures laugh at different things, they set out to discover what kinds of things Americans have always laughed at.

Four years later, the results of their exploration of American comedy are about to air in a six-hour PBS series, “Make ’em Laugh: the Funny Business of America,” directed by Mr. Kantor. Meanwhile Mr. Maslon’s companion book, written with Mr. Kantor’s collaboration and bearing the same title as the series, is just out from Hachette ($45). Big in every way—format, scope (it covers 100 years), depth and detail, the book is lavishly illustrated with more than 500 color and black and white photographs. With archival materials, biographical portraits and cultural overviews, it aims “to illuminate who we are as a nation by looking at what makes us laugh.”

Having found such a rich vein of American cultural history to mine, the next step—finding the right approach to extracting its riches—had the two men momentarily stymied.

They considered dividing the material into sections on stand-up comedy, black comedy and other such categories, recalled Mr. Maslon, but “that seemed sort of defeating.” Then Mr. Maslon had a better idea, drawn from his experience in the classroom at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is an associate professor.

“I thought of how when I teach American comedy at NYU, I use archetypes,” he said. “Each generation comes up with its own version of the archetype, reflecting shifts in demographics and cultural attitudes.”

Thus each chapter in the book—and each segment of the television series—focuses on a different style of comedy and its practitioners over the past century. What endures are the six archetypes, identified by Mr. Maslon as: “The Knockabouts,” “Satire and Parody,” “Smart-Alecks and Wiseguys,” “Nerds, Jerks, Oddballs and Slackers,” “Breadwinners and Homemakers,” and “The Groundbreakers.” What varies are the comics who adapt the enduring styles to their times.

With that hurdle cleared, “we breathed a huge sigh of relief,” said Mr. Maslon. They were ready to go.

Mr. Kantor conducted some 100 interviews; Mr. Maslon combed archives and wrote almost 70 profiles of comics—exhaustive preparation and arduous execution that could easily have produced a juiceless book. That the authors were determined to avoid such a fate is evident on the very first page, where Mr. Maslon quotes E.B. White on the pitfalls of writing about comedy: “Analyzing humor,” White wrote, “is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

In fact, the text of “Make ’em Laugh” is as lively and engaging as the book’s jazzy, colorful design. Jokes, quotes and flashes of insight invite readers to pause, laugh, or ponder. They are encouraged to make the connection between Mae West and George Carlin (Groundbreakers),The Honeymooners and The Simpsons (Breadwinners and Homemakers), Charlie Chaplin and Jim Carrey (Knockabouts).

Should they be curious about which comics are the favorites of comics themselves, the answer is there: Jack Benny, Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor head the list.

Mr. Maslon, too, is a big Benny fan. Raised on Long Island, he was a precocious fourth-grader when he prevailed on his parents to take him to Westbury Music Fair for a Benny performance.

“He wore glasses. I wore glasses,” said Mr. Maslon, explaining his fascination with the comedian. “I think I identified with him.”

“He’s revered across the board,” he added, “absolutely revered. I think it’s because he was so gutsy. He would be passive, take his time, that’s counterintuitive for a comedian.”

In the “Smart-Alecks and Wiseguys” chapter, where Benny has a prominent place, there is a quote from his wife about his appeal. “He was always put upon,” she says. “He was always kind of the patsy. He didn’t tell jokes—he was the butt of the joke.”

Benny himself once offered this analysis of how he was able to keep making ’em laugh: “My kind of comedy lasts because the Jack Benny character includes a composite of all the faults people may have, all the human frailties. He’s stingy and vain and insecure—insecurity is based on stinginess, which is fear of the future. Who isn’t afraid of the future? So—we exaggerate, we make a joke of it, and people recognize something in themselves. There’s a lot of everybody in Jack Benny.”

The book and series cover comedy right up to the moment—Jon Stewart, The Simpsons, Bill Maher and more—but asked about his personal favorites, Mr. Maslon admitted to a fondness for the “old fogy” lineup—Groucho Marx, Phil Silvers and their ilk.

Chaplin, arguably comedy’s king, is the first entry in the book’s first chapter, yet he was “the last one I wrote about,” said Mr. Maslon.

Why? Because writing about Chaplin is intimidating, “like climbing Mount Everest,” he said. “I had to have every other comedian under my belt first. Chaplin is one of the most written about human beings and was a very good writer himself.”

With that daunting task successfully accomplished, the book went to press and Mr. Maslon is pleased with the results.

“The book exists on its own,” he said. “There’s not a book like it, though you would think there would be.” He expressed particular pride in having included some archival material never before published, among other things a sketch by Woody Allen and an essay on the art of comedy by W.C. Fields.

Alas, he was unable to get permission to include Abbott and Costello’s hilarious “Who’s on First?” bit of nonsense—quite possibly the only thing missing in this extraordinarily inclusive and lively book.

“Make ’em Laugh: The Funny Business of America” will premiere on PBS stations on Wednesday, January 14, at 8 p.m. (ET) with “Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses?: Nerds, Jerks, & Oddballs.” At 9 p.m. on January 14, another segment will be aired, “Honey, I’m Home!: Breadwinners and Homemakers.” Each segment will be introduced by Billy Crystal and Amy Sedaris will narrate throughout. The series will continue on two more dates in January, on January 21 and January 28, starting at 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.pbs.org.

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