The quality of this book is reflected in its price. It's an almost unwieldy big book with arty cartoon inside flaps and photos, photos, photos. It was put together by two guys who have already co-authored a similar collection,
Broadway: The American Musical.
In reading through this book, if you can resist only reading about your favorite comedian, you will get a somewhat soft but recognizable portrait of how American humor has evolved with American culture. The book begins, necessarily, in the twentieth century, because it is about entertainers, not raconteurs or writers. It's about men and women who have the chutzpah to stand up and do and say funny things in front of a crowd - or, in that case of Bob Hope, not necessarily a crowd; one of his best lines came in a film:
"Do big empty houses scare you?"
It's obvious if you read between the lines that most of the early well-known comics in America were immigrants, probably the vast majority Jewish. Ethnic humor (which I grew up on) is pretty well banned from the market place these days, but in times past it was okay to celebrate and denigrate the Jews. the Irish, the Italians, even the Brits (Bob Hope was English). Why not? They were making fun of themselves! The marvelous Molly Goldberg was an unashamed Jewish mother and foreign immigrant. Here's a sample dialog:
"Not me. I used to be in vaudeville."
Jake: Molly, your soup is feet for a kink.
The book is fully packed with anecdotes and brief histories of comic's careers, and also contains sections on particular types of comedy, using a scatter-gun approach to pieces of the genre such as the 1950s-60's sitcoms in a chapter called "Honey, I'm Home." We learn that
The Dick Van Dyke Show was the first program to tell us where Dad was home from. Mr Cleaver just came in, fully dressed with hat and all, from some mysterious white collar job, but we knew Dick was working every day on comedy skits with his office cronies. Later, the office became the "home" or surrogate family, as people were less faithfully married and their lives more complex - look at
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example. Then, even family evolved and there were shows about familial but unrelated groupings of people whose comedic identity did not stem from their jobs but from their camaraderie, such as in
Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days.
Molly: You mean a president. We're in Amerike, not in Europe.
Jake: Oy, Molly, Molly, soon ve'll be eating from gold plates.
Molly: Jake, d'you tink it'll taste any better?
As with any profession, entertaining has its pitfalls. It's hard to start good and stay good. Those who tackle political satire have to be able to move and change with the times - that's why the consummate one-line artist, Johnny Carson, never made a statement of commitment to any political party. Some people, like Jerry Lewis, flourished with the right partner and fizzled on their own. George Burns knew that Gracie was the act, so he declared, "not being a fool and wanting to smoke cigars for the rest of my life, I gave her the jokes." Carol Burnett was funny, but with her supporting cast to play off on, she became a virtual queen of comedy. The intriguing "street theater" comic Andy Kaufman often alienated his audience by doing things that were simply not funny and never told a single joke in his short and highly unusual career. Audiences are fickle and their tastes change rapidly, or so the people who produce TV shows would like to have us believe. Many folks, perhaps only old geezers like me, still laugh out loud at the antics of Jackie Gleason in re-runs of
Gleason was a guy who had it made from the get-go - though he came up in relative poverty and hung around a lot of pool rooms as a teenager, by the time he hit show business he had developed a string interesting characters (some might say "alter egos") to draw from. He hated to rehearse so he relied on the characterizations to pull him through, much to the frustration of his fellow performers. Bill Cosby likewise was a successful stand-up comedian from his college days and never had to justify anything he put into his act in racial terms. He was just a funny man whose humor was human and harmless. Not like the screamingly funny Richard Pryor who wrestled with demons of drugs, the urge to shock his audience, and an identity crisis: was he a comedian first or black man first? He fought hard not to take jobs that would make him look like a sell-out to whites. Earlier role models like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley never gave a damn about all that, shamelessly exploiting their race's foibles as grist for the comedy mill. "Make 'em laugh" is the bottom line, after all.
There is, in my opinion, a notable absence in this book - no mention that I could find of the inimitable Don Knotts. Like so many other actor/comics, he had a heyday - 5 years as Barney Fife on
The Andy Griffith Show. For those 5 years he WAS the show, with a character he had been honing for years. If his later work did not parallel that success, that puts him in respectable company with many of the performers celebrated in Make 'Em Laugh. And American? Oh my. As apple pie.
That omission aside (and you may have others to complain about, for rich and unchained as the book is, it couldn't include every funny person who ever stood up in front of a microphone), this is a book for the whole family, bringing comedy up to the latest moment (cable TV and Bill Maher) and harking back to the radio days. It is not in chronological order, which may throw you. Just don't expect it. I know what you'll do anyway - you'll thumb through to your favorite - for me, it was Lucy, hands down. She said and others confirmed that she wasn't funny - she was just daring. But she sure knew how to make us laugh.