PBS explores business of humor in 6-part series 'Make 'Em Laugh'


UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. - With broadcast networks largely failing on the comedy count and the country in need of some laughs right about now, viewers' best bet may be to look back in time with PBS's Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, a six-part series that premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WGTE-FM, Channel 30, in Toledo and WBGU-FM, Channel 27, in Bowling Green. Two episodes air Wednesday nights for three weeks.

Billy Crystal hosts the program and Amy Sedaris narrates this look at assorted genres in American comedy, including nerds and oddballs, satire and parody, sitcoms and late-night, through interviews with comedians, writers, and producers such as Judd Apatow, Roseanne Barr, Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar, Larry David, and Chris Rock.

While the history of comedy is rich and varied, Sedaris said she's not sure about its future.

"It seems to be like anybody can get on TV right now, anybody can do their own show," she said. "It just seems like it's a real skill. You see those comedians on the documentary and you can see how hard they worked at it. They sacrificed everything to do it. And I don't know if that's the case today."

Of course, some of those anybodies can make a name for themselves online, but the Internet humor boom isn't included in the TV version of Make 'Em Laugh.

"While we were in the process of editing the program, we realized there was an additional area of comedy that had not been covered: online humor," said writer/producer Michael Kantor. "The explosion of the Internet has given rise to a whole new way of making funny, from comedians posting their content online to directly reach a potential audience of millions, to those unfortunate, inadvertent stars of viral videos."

Producers added an online-only episode at pbs.org/wnet/makeemlaugh, hosted by Sedaris as a computer illiterate version of herself.

The real Sedaris doesn't use the Web much, either. She doesn't read the fan site AmySedarisRocks.com, even though she's visited the home of the woman who created it.

"I don't want to know what she's writing about me. I just trust she likes me and so she's probably writing nice things, you know," Sedaris said. "I don't need to go on there to read about myself. I'll go to the bathroom stall."

PBS's Masterpiece series rechristened itself last season, dropping Theatre from its title and splitting into three distinct parts: Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery, and Masterpiece Contemporary. Series executive producer Rebecca Eaton called 2008 "our riskiest year in a very long time," but one that proved successful.

"This seems to have gone down really quickly with our viewers, the audience has been great," she said, noting more outreach to younger viewers through PBS.org, where Masterpiece is the fifth most-searched PBS series. She said that indicates the program is developing a new audience.

A new Miss Marple will debut during the Masterpiece Mystery! component this summer, as well as a new Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh), who's described as an emotional train wreck.

"I never thought we'd have a series that came close to the feeling of Inspector Morse," Eaton said, "but I think we do now."

•ABC News will rely on the BBC for reporting from Iraq beginning Feb. 1. The network will not have a full-time correspondent in the country but will maintain a bureau.

•CBS will test an original episode of its Tuesday night hit The Mentalist on Sunday, the network's weakest night, at 10 p.m. Jan. 18.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen, the TV editor for the Post-Gazette, is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Los Angeles.

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