The foreword by Richard Pryor is in itself worth the price of the book, not only because of his take on why it is impossible to figure out what is funny (it involves an analogy to Kermit the Frog) but also for his absolute trashing of comics who say they were inspired by him yet entirely miss the point of his humor.
Of course, the book opens with a history of comedy on radio where vaudeville's best aural acts left an indelible mark on comedy that echoes even in the most modern comic movies. It neatly segues into a chapter titled Vaudio (or Vaudeville on the glass teat) about those comedians like Milton Berle whose dependence on the visual prevented them from fame and fortune on radio but found an outlet in the early years of television. Garner quickly moves on to the sketch comedy television shows, covering almost fifty years in only twelve pages. He also devotes three informative chapters on the sitcom and its evolution over the last fifty years and a chapter on Saturday Night Live before taking on the history of stand-up comedy from the Borscht Belt to Chris Rock and Adam Sandler. It also includes a great but too short chapter on women stand-ups
The third section of the Made You Laugh!, Comedy in the Movies, is interesting but also somewhat of a letdown after the first two sections. Although it is very informative when it deals with silent movies and comic films up to the sixties, the rest of this section sometimes feels like little more than a series of plot summaries you have to get through to get the kind of informed commentary and history you were used to getting so easily in the first two sections.
Appropriately enough, the book closes with a special salute to the Marx Brothers though it feels a little out of place at the end of a book that was fairly chronological all the way through.
Minor quibbles with Made You Laugh! are a typo on page 5, Garner's love of the comma splice, a few awkward phrases such as "the late Sam Kinison and Jim Carrey" (didn't know Carrey was dead) and the fact some of the pictures, especially those of the early days, could have used a caption.
It is most certainly not meant as damning praise to say this book is much too short and each of its sections, aside from the movie plot summaries, could have been a volume on their own. Also most intriguing is Garner's mention in his acknowledgments page of his meeting with the great Jerry Lewis and the two-hour lesson in comedy Lewis gave him. I'd like to see that book.
What also makes this encyclopedia on comedy a must for any fan is the bonus DVD that comes with it. Hosted by Carl and Rob Reiner, it reprises visually the information and knowledgeable approach of the book. Unfortunately, and almost criminally, the DVD comes in a cheap plastic envelope glued haphazardly on the inside cover of the book.
The DVD is in an A&E Biography format and follows the very same structure as the book. A 3 hour-long compendium of comedy, it features footage and sometimes rare footage from some of the best comics, sitcoms, and funny movies of the past century. Slightly annoying is the viewer advisory that begins each segment in the stand-up comedy section.
If you are a fan of the genre or know someone who is, this book is an absolute must.
Book and DVD chapter list:
The Gilded Comics of Radio's Golden Age
And Now For Something Completely Different
Home Is Where The Howls Are
Sitcoms Get Real
When Friends Become Family
Live From New York, A Tribute To Saturday Night Live
From Borscht Belt to the Big Time: Pioneers
Rebel Yell: The Outlaws of Comedy
Sass, Brass, and Class: The Women of Comedy
Very Strange Bedfellows
Life Under a Microscope: The Observers
Too Big For the Room
Richard Pryor: From His Soul
Silent Films, Loud Laughter
Let's Get Physical
Throw Us a Screwball
Laughing in the Face of Love
Pull My Finger
The Spoof Is In the Pudding
The Marx Brothers: Hooray, Hooray, Hooray