How We Make The Funny

The Daily Show was a little nothing of a property when it debuted in the mid-90s. With the leadership of Jon Stewart, however, it became a cultural touchstone and the place where millions got their news. The Daily Show (the Book) by Chris Smith is an oral history of the high times and raucous humor of this staple of cable TV. Stewart and his crew worked very hard to bring political humor into the 21st century and focused on the why of something was funny. It was usually because it was an outrage on the body politic. Everyone gets to speak for themselves, and this book is like getting to sit in in the lap of your hilariously inappropriate uncle as he tells of his adventures in television.

At the dawning of The Daily Show, the 900-pound gorilla in the comedy TV business was Seinfeld. In Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong provides a highly readable history of this phenomenon. No one thought anyone would watch it, so the little show about nothing debuted in the summer. Nine seasons later, 76 million people tuned in for the finale and Seinfeld is still on the air in reruns in most markets. Armstrong also illuminates the fandom, from women lining up to get their ladles signed by the actor playing the Soup Nazi to those who propose new plotlines as if the show were still filming.

Much like Chris Smith, Tom Shales uses an oral history approach to document Saturday Night Live in Live From New York. While the two constants seem to be producer Lorne Michaels and the antipathy towards guest host Chevy Chase, the merry-go-round of personalities, drugs, and general shenanigans provides a great deal of hilarity, even if it is sometimes of a train-wreck variety. Part of the fun is how stories don't match up. Tom Shales also relies solely on interviews he conducted for this book, so certain members (Gilda Radner, Chris Farley) are not heard from. While SNL is/was never as funny as it used to be, this book consistently is.

John Ortved's The Simpsons bills itself as an unauthorized history of the groundbreaking show, but Ortved sure got a lot of people to talk to him. That's in keeping with the subversive ethos of The Simpsons, launched as an antidote to the sugary inoffensiveness on television at the time. As you may have guessed from the other books, not all the drama on the show stayed on the screen. Ortved's book is a rollicking tour from the days of The Tracy Ullman Show to cultural icon to television staple.

Finally, there's This Is A Book About The Kids in the Hall by John Semley. The Kids in the Hall were the darlings of alternative comedy during the 1980s and broke into the big time with their television show in the 1990s. While never as broadly popular as SNL and The Simpsons, they have increased in popularity via reruns and syndication.  Thorough and detailed, This is a Book follows The Kids In The Hall from Canada to multiple reunion tours.

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