Who said of war, "When you get into trouble 5,000 miles from your home, you've got to have been looking for it"? Was it Bill Maher? Jon Stewart? Stephen Colbert? Nope; it was Will Rogers, whose good-humored pokes at politicians defined the 1920s and 30s and set the stage for today’s more confrontational Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, andThe Colbert Report. This through line is what makes Make 'Em Laugh such an enlightening and exhilarating survey of American comedy. This vastly entertaining six-part PBS series explores how comedy has defined the nation's character, and spotlights comedians through the generations who broke the mold, broke the rules, and, in some cases, broke their necks to make us bust a gut. The ambitious Make 'Em Laugh is divided into six episodes, each devoted to a particular genre or style of comedy: "Would Ya Hit a Man with Glasses?: Nerds, Jerks & Oddballs"; "Honey, I'm Home: Breadwinners and Homemakers"; "Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts"; "When I'm Bad, I'm Better: The Groundbreakers"; and "Sock It To Me: Satire and Parody." Host Billy Crystal contributes some amusing bits to introduce each episode (the best is a pitch-perfect parody of Ken Burns’ stately documentaries). The charmingly off-center Amy Sedaris narrates. Comedy buffs may squawk over some grievous omissions, most heinously Ernie Kovacs, David Letterman, Second City, and SCTV (and don't blame Canada; Jim Carrey, a fellow Great White Norther, rates a segment). But the roster of participants (over 90 comedians, writers, producers, agents, and historians) is staggering, and the clips are not just the same old same old. There is rare footage of Elaine May and Mike Nichols and Tom Lehrer. The series is contemporary enough to include Judd Apatow, Larry David, The Simpsons, and Family Guy. The old masters (Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and The Three Stooges) get their due, as do the so-called sick and cerebral comedians of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s (Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Richard Pryor, George Carlin), for whom "getting a laugh and getting at the truth were the same thing." To its credit, Make ‘Em Laugh gives respect to some faded or forgotten clowns, characters, and kidders, including Harold Lloyd, Mae West, Moms Mabley, Phil Silvers, and Alan Sherman. If someone doesn't tickle your fancy, another entertainer will be along shortly. Cultural historians are on hand to explain what it all means, but it's more fun to hear the performers talk about their comedy heroes and inspirations, and how they found their own voices. At one point, satirist Mort Sahl reveals that Milton Berle once gave him a pointed political joke rather than use it himself, and explained to Sahl, "They don’t think I'm smart enough." It may not be a profound statement, but no truer words are spoken in this series than, "There will always be funny people, thank goodness." For future generations of comedians, these people will be a hard act to follow.