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What's So Funny, America?

By Alan BunceStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 1989


RODNEY DANGERFIELD calls it an attitude. Bob Hope fans say it's timing.

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Freud - typically - felt it was the kick that comes from briefly breaking your own mental rules.

In any case, it's humor, and it's on a roll in America. Publicly and privately, people are laughing harder, in more places - and sometimes paying for the privilege - than ever before.

The heyday of humor is seen in the virtual explosion of full-time comedy clubs around the nation - from 15 to some 300 in the last five years, not to mention more than 1,000 part-time rooms. This has created a job bonanza, of course, for professional comics, whose numbers have leaped from a few hundred to about 5,000, according to a recent estimate by Jerry Diner, president of the Professional Comedians Association.

Comedy is the biggest current draw on network TV, attracting over 25 million viewers weekly, a Nielsen study shows, and handily beating categories like feature films and general drama. Comedy also dominated 1988's top-grossing film list, with six of the year's 10 most popular attractions.

``Comedy is very strong today,'' says Marty Krofft, co-creator of the satirical TV series ``DC Follies.'' His program spoofs celebrities in politics, sports, and show business with a cast of life-sized puppet look-alikes. It might not have succeeded a decade ago, but today the climate is right, Mr. Krofft feels. ``There's so many cartoon characters out there,'' he says, ``that it's a picnic for humor. The more the world is in trouble, the more comedy there will be.''

That's exactly what happened during the Depression, claims comedy star Richard Belzer, author of the book ``How to Be a Standup Comic,'' soon to be released by Random House. ``People are cognizant of the uncertainty in the world,'' he says. ``In the '30s, 80 million people went to the movies every week. Now, people are going to comedy clubs. Some call them the new Yuppie vaudeville. Yuppies go to these clubs in droves to laugh and forget that sometimes they've made their good fortune on the backs of other people.''

The comedy that attracts them to these clubs is missing a vital part, according to comedian Mort Sahl. He says the young stand-ups who fill the comedy stores and TV shows may act anti-establishment, but it's a false front.

``They pretend to be a new generation, in rebellion, scoffing at their elders,'' Mr. Sahl asserts, ``but you've got to have a point of view, and they don't have one, as did Shaw or Wilde. We even had better homosexuals then - now they can't even write. The mission of comedians is to take something the audience and performer share, and present a side of it which had not occurred to the audience. You don't have to convert them. You're not Billy Graham. But a lot of it has to do with kidding on the square. These kids are jealous of the rich, but they're also envious. They don't want to bring them down; they want to join them.''

But if the current attitude is a fake, why are there so many comedy stores today?

``Because they're cheap,'' answers Sahl, one of the most effective stand-up comics in the business. ``They put 100 kids on and don't pay them anything, under the guise of developing new people. In the early days of the Hungry I in San Francisco, the owner would leave you there for a couple of months to find out who you were. He didn't give you five minutes in a comedy tournament like today. More importantly, if he felt you had no ability, he didn't put you on at all.

``Today kids come on for five minutes each and curse because of a poverty of language or because they've seen too many R-rated movies. And they're working with a very narrow audience - white and semi-collegiate. It's `mall humor,' done by kids who have never been in the Army, never lived with a woman, never attended a university. They get up and talk about things like watching television.''

What should they be talking about?

``I'm interested in irony and social satire,'' says Sahl. ``I can't find any performer with a sense of irony. Today when three actors say they're going to carry on Cesar Chavez's fast, they do it by going to a fancy Hollywood restaurant and having nothing for lunch.''