Make 'Em Laugh

The Funny Business of America


By Michael Kantor

By Laurence Maslon

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From the most popular routines and the most ingenious physical shtick to the snappiest wisecracks and the most biting satire of the last century, Make ‘Em Laugh illuminates who we are as a nation by exploring what makes us laugh, and why. Authors Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor draw on countless sources to chronicle the past century of American comedy and the geniuses who created and performed it-melding biography, American history, and a lotta laughs into an exuberant, important book.

Each of the six chapters focuses a different style or archetype of comedy, from the slapstick pratfalls of Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball through the wiseguy put-downs of Groucho Marx and Larry David, to the incendiary bombshells of Mae West and Richard Pryor . And at every turn the significance of these comedians-smashing social boundaries, challenging the definition of good taste, speaking the truth to the powerful-is vividly tangible. Make ‘Em Laugh is more than a compendium of American comic genius; it is a window onto the way comedy both reflects the world and changes it-one laugh at a time.

Starting from the groundbreaking PBS series, the authors have gone deeper into the works and lives of America’s great comic artists, with biographical portraits, archival materials, cultural overviews, and rare photos. Brilliantly illustrated, with insights (and jokes) from comedians, writers and producers, along with film, radio, television, and theater historians, Make ‘Em Laugh is an indispensible, definitive book about comedy in America.


Copyright 2008 © by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.


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First eBook Edition: December 2008

ISBN: 978-0-446-55575-3




It is funnier to bend things than to break them. If one comedian hits another over the head with a crowbar, the crowbar should bend, not break. In legitimate drama, the hero breaks his sword, and it is dramatic. In comedy, the sword bends, and stays bent.

—W. C. Fields


It's not surprising that the world of physical comedy should have its own physics. The very word slapstick—synonymous with physical comedy—comes from a mechanical object created for the commedia dell'arte players of the seventeenth century. These knock-about comics realized that an exaggerated physical movement deserved an exaggerated sound—a slap worked better than a punch—so they created a wooden bat with a blade down the middle that would smack against the base, thereby creating a great whopping whack! And, proving that experimentation is the name of the game in physical comedy, gunpowder was added to the blades of the slapstick in the nineteenth century.

The vocabulary of physical comedy has not changed much since the commedia dell'arte: the pratfall, the kick in the pants, the tumble, the double take. What has changed, beginning with the American silent film comedies of the 1910s that revolutionized the world, is the relation of physical comedy to the world of modern mechanization. Henri Bergson, the French literary critic, wrote a famous essay, "Laughter," in 1900 in which he held the relationship of man to machine as key to comedy. He felt that audiences laughed at two basically interdependent ideas: that we are amused when comic incidents reduce human beings to mechanized objects, and when mechanized objects seem to take on an anthropomorphic life of their own. The history of physical comedy in America since Bergson wrote his essay can, in some ways, be seen as the tension between those ideas; the comedians who have found ways to make us laugh by mechanizing themselves (bending, not breaking) and their manipulation of the various mechanisms created by technology (film, animation) in the service of laughter.

A physical comedian is immediately divorced from the laughter of language; he carries his very best gag with him at all times, his own body. It's rougher that way—and requires more of a pioneer spirit—but it has its advantages, as the modern clown, Bill Irwin, puts it:

A stand-up comedian, or an actor in a play, has to wait for that laughter to crest, and then say the next thing. When you've got something rolling as a physical comic, you can sometimes just keep going because people are laughing, so you can take the next iteration without having to wait for that laughter to die down. Now, that's useful when they're laughing. When they're not laughing, it's every bit as terrifying as stand-up.

While a verbal or stand-up comedian has to master content, the physical comedian has to master form. He or she has to know in which medium they are working, and how it can work to their advantage. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx, and the Three Stooges had worked in live vaudeville for years before they ever got in front of the camera, so they knew what made audiences laugh; Lucille Ball just dove in, feetfirst. For some comedians, the short form has worked best—again, the Three Stooges were most comfortable in eighteen-minute segments, and luckily, that format was easily translatable to after-school television programs, thereby earning them an entirely new audience in the 1950s and '60s. Harpo could get away with a series of three-minute bits spread out over ninety minutes; audiences welcomed his appearances as a pleasant respite from Groucho and Chico's verbal assaults. But length would always be a challenge to these comedians—the sheer energy required of an extensive physical routine is enormous. When early silent two-reelers (about twenty-five minutes) segued to longer features in response to audiences' tastes, it required a radical rethink of the content of film comedy. As historian Jeffrey Vance put it, "When you went into features your stories had to be believable, otherwise it just wouldn't hold up, and that was true with all the clowns, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd. The cartoon gags, the impossible gags—gone. Everything had to work for the story."

Physical comedians have also been challenged by technology; they can either master it or be mastered by it. Chaplin preferred to keep the camera framed around him like a proscenium arch, so that his pantomime could be seen in its complete form; Buster Keaton was more interested in setting up gags that kept the strings hidden, as it were, in order to confound the audience. But just as the silent masters had figured out the transition to longer features, the technology of sound came in and asked them to rethink their comic strategies one more time. Harold Lloyd had a realistic assessment of the challenge:

Silents did have a wonderful quality, in that there was a certain relaxation in the theater: you could go in there and do your own imagining of what they would say and how they would say it. It had its own attributes. But of course, we all talk, we see things in color, and we see things in dimensions. That's progress. [Therefore], practically the whole procedure started to change. It was easier to sit down and talk, to make up verbal quips, to give dialogue instead of visual action, ocular business—gags, we used to call them, pieces of business. The spoken word seemed to be much simpler to get the laughs from, and much cheaper. They could make a picture for much less, because visual comedy is expensive. It takes comedy, it takes pacing, it takes rehearsal to bring it off correctly. As time went on, the comedians seemed to lose the art or knack of doing pantomime.

Chaplin, famously, refused to give up his art of pantomime for years, claiming, "If I did make a talking picture, I felt sure that when I opened my mouth, I would become just like any other comedian." He succumbed and recreated himself in a new and interesting way. For some comics, namely the Three Stooges, sound was a blessing—it enabled them to get away with the most violent slapstick, since it could be palatably denatured (oddly enough) by the addition of the most violent soundtrack. Jerry Lewis exploited his innate musicality by underscoring many of his most amusing sequences and letting his body language react and ricochet to the tune.

Sound also proved to be a boon to the world of animation, allowing cartoons to exploit their visual audacity to the fullest by underscoring them with equally outrageous music and effects. Even the addition of color—intense, shocking color—enhanced the animated experience. The art of animation turned a corner in the mid-1930s when inspired artists like Tex Avery realized that the mere duplication of reality was the very least of what cartoons could achieve: "We found out early that if you did something with a character, either animal or human or whatnot, that couldn't possibly be rigged up in live action, why then, you've got a guaranteed laugh." Still, as technologically progressive as cartoons could get, they still needed the human factor to connect with an audience. Film historian Leonard Maltin notes that "every animator I ever interviewed or read about in the twenties and well into the thirties, and maybe even beyond, studied Charlie Chaplin. The artists at Disney revered Chaplin, including Walt. They even traced some of his movements in some cases just to see how he did it, because his body language was so extraordinary."

Perhaps the threat of being mechanized out of existence is what has made physical comedians extremely protective—of themselves, of their gags, and perhaps most of all, of their props. One of the great ironies of physical comedy is watching a master comedian transform into a complete incompetent when dealing with the props of daily life: Keaton with a boat, Lucy with a blender, Jerry Lewis with a bunk bed. We laugh helplessly to see them undone by the simplest of appliances—but of course we've been in the same boat, as it were, ourselves. The supreme joke is that, in rehearsal, these comedians must attain complete mastery of their props in order to unleash such hilarious chaos.

Pratfalls, Inc: (previous) Chaplin in The Rink; the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis; Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein.


Bill Irwin says that "Most of us physical comedians are prop comics. Most of us say, 'Mothers, tell your children to stay clear of prop comedy,' because it's all about stuff, and it's all about the stuff going well. And you're dependent on stagehands, some of whom, you know, really don't get it or really could care less sometimes." Harpo Marx would trust only his own son, Bill, to load and unpack his property case, and trust is a big issue for the physical comedian.

It makes tremendous sense. A verbal comedian can always get new writers, but a physical comedian writes his fate on his own body—he can't really send it back for a revision. The great physical comedians were always uncompromising, always in control. They had to be; they are the only comedians who work—figuratively and literally—without a net. What Harold Lloyd had feared in 1927 has come to pass, in a way; there are fewer and fewer comedians left with the knack of pantomime. Some of that may be because our modern age is so complex and so skeptical that it requires the full bore of verbal humor to produce any kind of effect. Some of it may be due to technology, after all; what Pixar can do with toy spacemen and wisecracking donkeys is far beyond the ability of human reality. The current state of computer animation allows audiences and producers to have it both ways; you can contract the voice and personality of a major comedian—Eddie Murphy, say—and attach them digitally to the limitless physical potential of an animator's imagination. And it's no use pretending that we don't laugh as hard at Robin Williams's Genie in Aladdin as we do at Buster Keaton.

But still, the pioneering work of the physical comedian lives with us every day. Maybe we don't laugh at every line of a late-night comic's monologue, but watching someone slip into an open manhole on the way to work in the morning is surefire. And it's not as if physical comedy isn't quotable, either.



The American is an optimist preoccupied with hustling dreams, an indefatigable tryer. He hopes to make a quick "killing." Hit the jackpot! Get out from under! Sell out! Make the dough and run! Get into another racket! Yet this immoderate attitude began to brighten my spirit. I began to regain confidence. Whatever happened, I was determined to stay in America.

–Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin sailed past the Statue of Liberty for the first time twice; the first was as a featured comic actor traveling from England with the Karno American Company in the fall of 1910, the second time was as the Little Tramp in the spring of 1917, in the Mutual Films short The Immigrant. Within seven event-filled years, Chaplin had completely rewritten the Victorian rags-to-riches story for modern times.

Chaplin's goal in both of his American arrivals was to get laughs. With the 1917 short, it was immediate:

Balls in the air: (clockwise from above): Leading actor in Karno's company; monkeying around in The Circus (1928); The Pawnshop (Mutual, 1916).

Figuring out what the audience expects, and then doing something different, is great fun to me. In one of my pictures, The Immigrant, the opening scene showed me leaning far over the side of a ship. Only my back could be seen and from the convulsive shudders of my shoulder, it looked as though I was seasick. If I had been, it would have been a terrible mistake to show it in the picture. What I was doing was deliberately misleading the audience. Because when I straightened up, I pulled a fish at the end of a line into view, and the audience saw that, instead of being seasick, I had been leaning over the side to catch the fish. It came as a total surprise and got a roar of laughter.

His arrival in America in 1910 was part of a longer journey, and it wasn't all filled with laughter.

Charles Chaplin was born in London on April 16, 1889, in a working-class district, south of the river Thames. If his childhood was not exactly Dickensian, it was close enough to be miserable. His father was a second-rate music hall entertainer and his mother was an aspiring singer; neither parent's career was successful and they split up when Chaplin was a boy. Chaplin and his brother, Sydney, had to sit by and watch as their mother slowly degenerated into madness and went in and out of mental institutions. The Chaplin boys were thrown into a spiral of poverty and separation, often being sent to charity schools while their mother was recuperating.

But Charlie and his brother had inherited some of the performing talents that their parents had squandered; as a youngster, Charlie appeared in music hall skits and small parts on the West End. Sydney joined a successful music hall company called Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians in 1906 and two years later procured a role for his brother. Charlie did so well with Karno's pantomime style of humor that Karno promoted him to a leading role in one sketch because the previous leading man—named Stan Laurel—had moved on. Chaplin refined his comic style in front of live audiences for nearly six years under Karno's tutelage; despite his eventual success in film, he always felt grateful for the precision of his theatrical training.

Chaplin enjoyed a huge success traveling across America during the 1910 Karno tour; billed as Chaplin the Inebriate, he headlined in several sketches, including his great drunk act, "A Night in a London Club." He returned to the States in 1912, and while he was performing in Philadelphia a telegram arrived for the Karno company manager: IS THERE A MAN NAMED CHAFFIN IN YOUR COMPANY OR SOMETHING LIKE IT STOP IF SO WILL HE COMMUNICATE WITH KESSEL AND BAUMAN 24 LONGACRE BUILDING BROADWAY. Chaplin, thinking he had been left money by a dying relative, took the train to New York and found out that he was being made an offer by Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios. He signed his first film contract in December of 1913 for $150 a week and was off to California to become one of Sennett's legendary stable of comedians.

Sennett's Keystone films were boisterous, fast-paced, sloppy affairs, and Chaplin had some difficulty fitting into Sennett's schemes. He had made a few short films while trying to find a character or persona that he could latch on to. He thought a visit to the Keystone wardrobe department might give him an inspiration; it did more than that, it gave him his career. As Chaplin recounted in his autobiography:

I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter. However, on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.

The Tramp character was first seen by the public in Kid Auto Races in Venice in 1914, a quickie not much better made than an amateur film, but he repeated the character in several more accomplished shorts. Chaplin moved on to direct himself in all of his pictures (with the exception of the first full-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance) and quickly tired of Sennett's on-the-fly style. In 1915, after thirty-five short subjects with Keystone, Chaplin moved on to Essanay Studios, where he was given the unprecedented salary of $1,250 per week, as well as his own production unit and ensemble of actors. As Chaplin historian Jeffrey Vance put it, "If Keystone was his infancy, the Essanay film company was his adolescence. He slowed things down, he took more time, and he added pathos, irony, and fantasy to his comedies." Chaplin was now famous throughout the globe; according to one newspaper report: "The world has Chaplinitis. … Once in every century or so a man is born who is able to color and influence the world … a little Englishman, quiet, unassuming, but surcharged with dynamite is flinching the world right now." He had also further refined the Tramp character, with his unmistakable size-fourteen boots, derby, and wiggling mustache:

If comedy is a man in trouble, Chaplin is up on the high wire with a monkey crawling on his face. When in danger of life and limb, he would always have some sort of preoccupation with dignity.

–Bill Irwin

You know, this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, and a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear—but only in extreme anger!

Chaplin's contract with Essanay ended in 1916; his costly perfectionism disappointed the penny-pinching exhibitors, and there were lawsuits and recriminations. When Chaplin decided to sign with the Mutual Film Corporation, his salary was $670,000 (plus a $150,000 bonus), which was not only the highest amount of money paid to a performer in human history but the highest paid to any employee of any kind. He moved into his own studio, the Lone Star Studio, and over the next two years he created twelve short subjects, which critics believe to be his best, most essential work. Chaplin certainly thought so: "Fulfilling the Mutual contract, I suppose, was the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, twenty-seven years old, with fabulous prospects and a friendly, glamorous world before me."

Comedy superstar: (l. to r.) Merchandising giant; before a bond rally; forming UA with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks; behind the camera; The Adventurer (Mutual, 1917).

Charlie had one fault, I always felt. He'd milk his business, his gags too much. If he got something good, he never seemed to want to let go of it. But that's such a minor thing. We all have them.

—Harold Lloyd

The Mutual studio, with its ensemble of gifted comedians and full resources, was, according to Vance, "like Chaplin's comic laboratory. There he could experiment and could lavish the most precious thing in the world—time—on those twelve films. He was never more inventive." Film historian Leonard Maltin adds that Chaplin displayed another important quality at Mutual: grace. "He sifted out the crudeness that you see in his earliest films and sort of ennobled himself, but never so much that he wasn't still that little tramp man of the people." Chaplin's variety at Mutual was astounding. He alternates the Tramp with other characters, playing a daring escaped convict in The Adventurer, a beleagured waiter in The Rink, and most impressively, an inebriated toff in One A.M.—for all intents and purposes, a solo film in which Chaplin tries, in vain, to enter his own mansion and put himself to bed (he winds up in the bathtub, snuggling with the bath mat). He keyed into the comic sensibilities of his drunken character:

Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous, however, is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity. Perhaps the best example is the intoxicated man who, though his tongue and walk give him away, attempts in a dignified manner to convince you that he is quite sober.

The tools available to Chaplin in his own studio appealed to the control freak in him. Most other silent comedy directors only shot another take if something catastrophic happened; Chaplin shot ten times the amount of footage he actually used in the Mutual films. His actors were trained to imitate his every suggestion to the letter. He frustrated his longtime cameraman by insisting that the camera capture him from derby to flatfeet as often as possible. Chaplin's framing followed his philosophical dictum that "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, a comedy in long shot." Yet all could be forgiven by his immense grace on film, his physical mobility, his tiny touches, the flourishes that kept the roughhouse from being offensive and elevated his very essence into the realm of art, something the audience hardly thought possible from the knockabout world of silent comedy of the early 1910s. W. C. Fields saw one of the Mutual films, Easy Street, in a revival house in 1930 and famously ejaculated, "The son of a bitch is a ballet dancer. He's the best ballet dancer that ever lived and if I get a good chance I'll kill him with my bare hands."

Chaplin would move on once again, like a millionaire version of the Tramp. After his Mutual contract expired he signed with a company called First National, where he would create The Kid, and then left that studio to form United Artists with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1923. Chaplin created five more feature-length silent comedies, and as the world—and sound pictures—got more complicated, so did his politics, his personal life, and his reputation. But within five years of his first visit to America, he had been transformed from a strolling player into the first, and perhaps best known, celebrity of the twentieth century, at a time when there were no road maps or precedents for such popularity. It was a heavy responsibility, and Chaplin made many mistakes along the way, but he knew that, in the end, what mattered most appeared on a projection screen:

In my work I don't trust anyone's sense of humor but my own. … It isn't because I think I am so much smarter than those around me. It is simply because I am the one who gets all the blame or credit for the picture. I can't insert a title in a picture, for instance, and say: "People, I don't blame you for not laughing. I didn't think it was funny myself, but the fellows around me told me it was and so I let it go."



Abbott and Costello—never gave the story a second thought. They'd say, "When do we come and what do we wear?" Then they find out the day they start to shoot the picture what the script's about. Didn't worry about it. Didn't try to. Well, that used to get my goat because, my God, when we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamed them!

–Buster Keaton, 1964

Buster Keaton's fevered dream of a film career—his silent classics—lasted a mere dozen years, but he had already been a show business veteran for seventeen years before he had even set his feet above his head in front of a camera.

Joseph Frank Keaton was born in 1895, in a small farm town in Kansas. According to him, "I was born with a tent show on a one-night stand in Kansas. My mother joined the show when I was two weeks old. It was called 'The Keaton & Houdini Medicine Show Company.' Now that's Harry Houdini, the handcuff king. He was the doctor and trickster of the outfit and my old man was the entertainer and comic." It was Houdini, Keaton always claimed, who gave him his nickname; at six months old, the boy fell down a flight of stairs and sat up unscathed. "That was sure a buster," said the master illusionist, and the elder Keaton said, "That would be a good name for him, don't sound bad."

Great Stone Face: as a vaudevillian toddler; with Fatty Arbuckle and Al St. John; the rest is silents. Far right: Sherlock Jr.; toying with sound.

At the age of five, Buster joined the family act, "The Three Keatons," as a kind of miniature version of his father. The youngster was the eager foil for the knockabout act, which went on to headline in major venues across the country, and although responsible members of the community bristled at the physical abuse to which Buster was being subjected, he didn't seem to mind. Whirlwinds came naturally to Keaton. According to Keaton scholar Patricia Tobias:

[As a little boy], he had been left at the boarding house. And his parents were onstage when a tornado blew through town. They went running back to the boarding house and they discovered that Buster was not in his bed. And reportedly, shortly thereafter, after they had started searching all over, someone showed up at the door and knocked on the door and said, "Is this yours?" and handed them their child who had been sucked out the window and deposited, unharmed, about a half a mile away.

What had become more harmful, over the course of nearly two decades, was Keaton's father's alcoholism, which started lousing up the precision of the family act. At the age of twenty-one, Buster broke up the act and accepted an offer to move to New York and appear in a Broadway revue. Broadway audiences, alas, never got the chance to see him.

The theater's loss was the cinema's gain. One afternoon in 1917, Keaton went with an acquaintance to watch one of the screen's leading comics, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, film a two-reeler on East Forty-eighth Street. Arbuckle asked Keaton to join him for a scene or two in his short The Butcher Boy, and it was love at first sight. "Well, the making of a motion picture started to fascinate me immediately," said Keaton years later. "First thing I did was I asked a thousand questions about the camera and got into the camera. Then I went into the projecting room to see things cut. It just fascinated me." Keaton tore up his Broadway contract and joined Arbuckle's unit, eventually moving out to California to make movies with him. He had also discovered one of his great assets, his deadpan facial expression:

I just happened to be, even as a small kid, I happened to be the type of comic who couldn't laugh at his own material. I soon learned at an awful early age that when I laughed the audience didn't. So, by the time I got into pictures, that was a natural way of working.

The average mind of the motion picture audience is twelve years old.

–Fatty Arbuckle

Roscoe, something tells me that those who continue to make pictures for twelve-year-old minds ain't going to be with us long.

–Buster Keaton


On Sale
Dec 2, 2008
Page Count
384 pages

Michael Kantor

About the Author

Michael Kantor is a writer, director, and producer whose work includes “Quincy Jones: In the Pocket” for American Masters, Cornerstone for HBO, and The West with Ken Burns. Prior to his work in television, Kantor was a freelance theater director and writer, published in Newsday, American Theater, and Interview. He is president of Ghost Light Films and Almo Inc., companies dedicated to bringing the arts to television.

Laurence Maslon is an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. With Michael Kantor, he coauthored two episodes of the Broadway series and served as its senior adviser. He also wrote the American Masters biography of Richard Rodgers and edited the Library of America edition of George S. Kaufman’s comedies. He lives in New York City and on the North Fork of Long Island.

Learn more about this author

Laurence Maslon

About the Author

Laurence Maslon teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and has written extensively on Broadway. He also wrote the American Masters biography of Richard Rogers and edited an edition of George S. Kaufman’s comedies for the Library of America.

Michael Kantor is a producer of documentary films such as The West with Ken Burns, Lindbergh, Out of the Past, and Ric Burn’s New York series. Prior to his work in documentary film, Mr. Kantor was a freelance theater director and writer, and has been published in Newsday, TheatreWeek, and Interview.

Learn more about this author