What's So Funny, America?

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

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.''

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.''

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.''

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