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What's So Funny, America?

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Gene Perrett, a top comedy writer for Bob Hope and other big names, has a similar complaint against some of the new humor. ``It's misleading,'' he says. ``The comedy stores have a very small audience with its own special taste for certain kinds of jokes, often sex- or drug-related. But the new comics refuse to admit there's another audience. ... I exhort youngsters to capture that other audience by going beyond easy things.''

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But Belzer, a star of clubs and TV, sees a core of real artists emerging from the process. He calls Sahl an idol of his and agrees with him in part, but cautions, ``You cannot dismiss all new comedians. People don't realize how hard it is to be a standup comedian because there are so many mediocre ones.'' It's so demanding an art, in fact, that one venerable show-business story tells of the time a friend paid a call on a gravely ill actor - Edmund Gwenn or Edmund Kean, depending on your source. ``This must be terribly hard for you,'' said the friend, sympathetically. ``Dying is easy,'' the actor replied. ``Comedy is hard.''

Today, says Belzer, ``There are hundreds of people merely acting like comedians - mimicking what they see other people doing, the timing and inflection. But there are a handful of earnest people - like Steven Wright and Gilbert Godfried and Richard Lewis - who are really creative.''

But the trend is giving lots of hopeful actors an unheard-of chance for exposure, adds Jim Morris, a hot young comedy star currently best known for his Ronald Reagan impersonation. ``Comedy can get them noticed,'' he says. ``It's a lot easier to be seen by casting directors if you're always working. That holds true of many dozens of comedians out in Los Angeles who perform comedy so they can showcase their acting talents and get roles.''

And the motivation for going into comedy in the first place has changed, Perrett maintains. ``Most people did it for one reason,'' he states, ``to cover an inferiority complex. People used to say there were no good-looking comedians. They were the funny-looking guys who resorted to jokes to help themselves. I don't think that's true any more. Today there are some good-looking comics.''

He thinks the results, in general, are doing wonders for ordinary people. ``It's eliminating all the poisons,'' he says. ``Humor can enable you to see things as they are and not the way most of us do. When problems hit us, like being stuck in traffic jam, instead of letting it antagonize us, we can dismiss it with humor; so it will have no more power over you. If your bags are lost at an airport, for instance, you can either fume, or you can say to yourself, `Boy, I've really traveled a lot this year - I've been in almost as many cities as my luggage!'''

Don Nilsen, an English professor and humor specialist at Arizona State University, agrees that the current explosion of humor can be a huge plus for the average person. ``It's proving to be good medicine,'' he says. ``It makes us secrete adrenalin, makes us more alert. Our eyes twinkle; we hear things better, perceive more, and respond better. ... Laughter has been called internal jogging.''

Morris describes the effect as ``a legal high'' and says, ``Americans are always looking for the next thing - the faster car, the nicer watch. People's senses are deadened. Everything's a search for more stimulation, and comedy provides it. To work, it has to be fresh and new, in order to shock you into laughter, whether it's a loud bellow or just something you're amused at watching on television. It's made you notice.''

But only for the moment, according to Sahl. ``They've milked comedy,'' he asserts, ``and it's waning. In America they got everybody playing tennis and buying graphite rackets; then it stopped. Then everyone played racket ball. Now everybody's been a comedian. I feel kind of sorry for these kids. Where's it all going?''

It's going toward a better and higher-caliber comedy, many professionals and fans hope - the result of a gradual winnowing process that will eliminate the lookalikes.

Who, then, will the future stars be? ``History's taught us that the nonconformist wins,'' Sahl claims. ``That's what Ibsen said. I went the other way from others, and what was essentially a handicap turned out to be my principal virtue. But there aren't many that will do that in the arts or politics.''

In the end, we still laugh at the same basic things, states Perrett, ``as long as it has one crucial element: sincerity. George Burns says once you learn to fake that, you got it made.''