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Stand-ups, Sitcoms and Satirists: 'Make 'em Laugh' to Chronicle a Century of Comedy

By Lauren Cardillo

The ever staid and stoic Michael Kaplan, producer/director of Make 'em Laugh. Photo: Joe Sinnott. Courtesy of Thirteen/WNET

After producing what many consider the definitive documentary series on the Broadway musical, what topic was there left to tackle for filmmaker Michael Kantor? Something that made him laugh.

Series producer/director Kantor and his Emmy Award-winning team from Broadway: The American Musical have just started principal photography on a new six- hour PBS series chronicling more than a century of American comedy, called Make'em Laugh: The Funny Business of America.

The multi-million-dollar HD series premieres on PBS in Spring 2008, and is being produced by Thirteen/WNET New York and Kantor's company Ghost Light.

"Make'em Laugh grew out of the Broadway series, and the presidential election of 2004," says Kantor. "Our whole culture has grown so fractured and splintered. Is there some common thread that holds us together? Yes: comedy. Everyone likes to laugh." Make'em Laugh will explore what Americans like to laugh about, and why, and feature biographical portraits and comedy performances throughout.

Kantor hopes to interview about 60 to 75 people for the series. Among those already captured on video: Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Professor Irwin Corey, Max Wilk, Hal Kanter, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, George Shapiro, Joe Franklin, Herbert Kenwith (who was a friend of Mae West), Budd Friedman and Jonathan Winters. "I like to start each project by interviewing a wide range of people, many of whom have seen it all or done it all," according to Kantor. "So far, no one has really said ‘No' yet. It's been smooth sailing."

Like the Broadway series, which used popular music to tell the story of different eras in American history, this project will do the same with comedy. "Doesn't a great joke from the Depression tell you about the Depression itself?" asks Kantor. "We're not going to analyze the humor, but put it in historical context. You only understand the joke if you get the context. Comedy reflects the times. Like E.B. White said, ‘Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.'

"Documentary film has an amazing power to bring you back in time very quickly," says Kantor. "We'll use that power to showcase a hundred years of great jokes, sketches, pratfalls and comedy routines. Our goal is to try to be as surprising as the comedy itself. If comedy is anything, it's surprising. Comedy draws its power from the unexpected."

One of the goals of the series is to find out what is unique about American humor. "We don't know yet," he admits. "But that's what we hope the series will tell us. We Americans pride ourselves on being louder, faster and funnier than any other culture. We embrace it like not other."

"We're starting Make'em Laugh with silent film comedians, and if you look ahead from there, I think the two biggest innovations were the development of stand-up comedy and the sit-com," Kantor maintains. "Both got really popular just after World War II, and their influence today greatly outweighs the kind of comedy that came before."

And while the Broadway series was arranged chronologically, this new comedy effort is organized thematically around some comedy ideas that are uniquely American. "Stand-up and sitcoms really flourished here in the US," Kantor explains. "So this structure provides a more flexible framework." Each hour explores one of the following themes:

  • Physical Comedy (Chaplin, the Road Runner, Jim Carrey, Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball)
  • Satire and Parody (Jon Stewart, Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar)
  • The Con Artists (Groucho Marx, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Joan Rivers, W.C. Fields)
  • The Nerds (Woody Allen, Bob Hope, Steve Martin, Eddie Cantor, Ellen Degeneres)
  • The Domestic Comedy (Burns and Allen, The Honeymooners, The Odd Couple, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, The Simpsons)
  • The Cutting Edge (Lenny Bruce, Mae West, Mort Sahl, Bill Maher, George Carlin, Richard Pryor)

This structure also allows Kantor to feature some artists in several categories. "You might see Lucille Ball in both an hour about physical comedy, and another about domestic comedy," he explains.

The length of the series provides plenty of additional flexibility, too. "When you try to cover a big subject like this in two to three hours, inevitably you are cutting corners and making impossibly tough decisions about what to leave out," Kantor notes. "Some filmmakers favor longer series, but I think six hours is just right.

"I learned from Broadway that the key to directing these programs is to keep asking the bigger questions--What does this material say about its time period? What does it mean to the advancement of the art form? What does it mean to the people involved at the time? Hopefully the film ends up both entertaining and educating, because I think people get as big a thrill out of learning something as they do from hearing a great song or joke. Also, story is all-important. You don't want to create an endless catalog of jokes and sketches."

According to Kantor, this series is more complicated than Broadway because of all the rights issues regarding footage. For Broadway, rights were acquired from ASCAP, Equity and a few others. "Here, we're reaching out to many estates and right holders for examples of work," he explains. However, the series won't be relying on fair use to help with the use of footage. "We intend to source and license our material as best we can," says Kantor.

Along with co-writer Laurence Maislan and head editor Kris Liem, Kantor hopes to spend about six months editing each hour. "That's the dream," he says. "Eighteen weeks might be where we end up." Late in the editing process is when a host will be chosen, too.

The look of the series also will be affected by the acquisition of all the different footage sources. "Broadway was shot on Super-16mm; Make 'Em Laugh is being shot in HD 24p," Kantor says. "So at one end we'll have these gorgeous images, and at the other end you have very grainy kinescopes in black and white. You do the best with what you've got, and you build into the program a narrative that explains that, as comedy was evolving, so too was mass media."

Another big difference between Make'em Laugh and Broadway: The American Musical? This project is taking less than four years to put together; Broadway took nine. While Make ‘em Laugh came together quickly, Kantor is still looking for completion funds and corporate sponsors.

Part of those funds will go to the series' ambitious outreach plan. It will be modeled on the success of the award-winning Broadway effort, which reached over 400,000 students nationwide. Part of that package was a CD in which students were given the opportunity to write lyrics to a famous Irving Berlin song from the 1920s. "What is more fun than that?" offers Kantor. "On Make ‘Em Laugh, we hope to do the same kind of thing, which is simply to engage students in history, social studies and language arts by luring them with the entertainment value of the comedy. For students, the comedy can be the ‘spoonful of sugar' that will introduce American cultural history to them."

Kantor's goal is to complete a program with a broad context. "We want kids from eight to 80 to watch it. We'd like to introduce Jack Benny to the kids--and Jon Stewart to the older generations."


Lauren Cardillo is an Emmy Award winner whose most recent film, The Mother Road, is currently being distributed on PBS. You can find out more information at