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Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business Of America

Comedian Billy Crystal, host of "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business Of America."
Joseph Sinnott, Thirteen/WNET New York
Comedian Billy Crystal, host of "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business Of America."

Airs Tuesdays, December 27, 2011 - January 10, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

This six-hour comedy epic showcases the most hilarious men, women and moments in American entertainment and why they made us laugh.

Hosted by funnyman Billy Crystal, 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.

"Make 'em Laugh: The Funny Business Of America" is on Facebook.

Comedy's Evolution

History: Vaudeville and Broadway - Learn about the headliners of vaudeville and Broadway, strutting their stuff and reprising material more than a half-century old.

History: Clubs, Camps, and Catskills - “Follow the money,” went the refrain in "All the President’s Men." When it comes to charting the influence of nightclubs and resorts on American comedy, the refrain might be “Follow the martini.”

History: Cartoons - The reason, perhaps, why most animated cartoons are funny is because it’s in their pedigree; they came right out of the funny papers.

History: Radio - Radio created so many of the ways that Americans receive and perceive comedy that it is arguably the most influential medium for comedy in our history.

History: Comedy LPs - Comedy recordings have actually been around as long as there have been record players.

History: Cable Television - After battling the FCC and the broadcast network on the numerous legal technicalities for decades, a pay cable network makes its debut in 1972 transforming the comedy landscape forever.

Part One: "Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses?: Nerds, Jerks, & Oddballs" airs Tuesday, December 27 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.

Part Two: "Honey, I’m Home!: Breadwinners and Homemakers" airs Tuesday, December 27 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.

Part Three: "Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts" airs Tuesday, January 3 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.

Part Four: "When I’m Bad, I’m Better: The Groundbreakers" airs Tuesday, January 3 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 of the American Constitution calls “freedom of speech” to bring the biggest and most dangerous laughs to the American public.

Part Five: "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: The Wiseguys" airs Tuesday, January 10 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 aggravate 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.

Part Six: "Sock it to Me?: Satire and Parody" is not scheduled for broadcast - 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.

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