Comedy shortage -- no laughing matter

Whatever happened to comedy?

You can always get a very unfunny symposium going any time you throw open the floor to that question.

According to custom, the sob-leaders of the discussion will refer sooner or later to a Golden Age of Comedy that flourished, by a remarkable coincidence, when they were between the ages of 16 and 25.

But this time we're right, aren't we?

There really was a period when comedy was everywhere you looked and listened. And we don't mean sitcom. We mean standup comedians with monologues, routines, and skits. We're talking about a national habit that goes back to when Americans built their lives around Jack Benny and Fred Allen and Jimmy Durante the way they arrange schedules today about ''Dallas'' or ''General Hospital.'' We're talking about Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca and Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters and Ernie Kovacs and George Gobel and Lenny Bruce and Steve Allen and the Smothers Brothers and Flip Wilson and the ensemble of ''Laugh-In.''

You name your favorite comedian. Chances are he's now selling trash bags for TV commercials or raising his hand on a quiz-game panel.

It's enough to make you want to start a ''Bring Back Milton Berle'' movement.

What do we laugh at these days, beside the canned snickers of ''Three's Company''?

Well, there are best sellers like ''101 Uses for a Dead Cat'' and ''The Reagan Wit,'' which has, for openers, a section called ''The Assassination Attempt.''

Is ''Honey, I forgot to duck'' destined, in all its possible applications, to be the punch line of the '80s?

We most solemnly hope not.

We all keep telling ourselves that never was a good laugh more needed than today.

We all keep telling ourselves that nobody could improve upon the satire known as current history.

And yet few people are laughing very much, including the comedians.

''I Live for Laughs'' read the headline in the Village Voice, but the laugh-liver goes on mostly to complain that ''the new young comics are distressingly tame.''

We are forever sweeping the horizon for that New Generation of Comedians -- and failing to find them. Or when we think we find them, they turn into actors, like Chevy Chase and Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin and Richard Pryor and John Belushi and Goldie Hawn, as if being a comedian weren't quite enough.

And, of course, being an actor isn't quite enough either, so comedians dream, not only of playing ''Hamlet'' but of directing it, like Jonathan Miller, one of the funniest men to walk a stage as a member of ''Beyond the Fringe,'' who now devotes himself to interpreting Shakespeare and opera.

Well, comedians are as obsessed with change-and-growth as anybody else -- it's part of the Zeitgeist. Mike Nichols and Elaine May don't want to be Mike Nichols and Elaine May anymore. But doesn't anybody want to be the new Mike Nichols and Elaine May? Doesn't anybody want to be the next Marx Brothers, or even the Three Stooges?

Part of the problem lies with the audience. Fragmentation is the word. If we don't form a political or moral consensus, we don't form a very comfortable comedy consensus either. Nobody, it seems, can please the humorous right, left, and center the way even a fairly tart comedian like Will Rogers could.

Today's non-laughter must worry about the country turning into splinter groups, all claiming to be the Comedy Majority, and dedicated to saying to one another: ''I don't find that funny at all.''

Still, comedy has always been a form of dissent. The jester can't take the king and the court entirely seriously, and the rest of us need that antic rebellion the way we need a holiday.

The need doesn't go away, and the supply will return once more. There will be one unfailing sign when comedy blooms again: Nobody will have to define it. Nobody will want to write columns about it.

We can hardly wait.

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