THE UGLY SIDE OF COMEDY : Laughter May Ring Hollow When Our Baser Instincts Reign

Steve Martin once joked that comedy is not pretty. Lately, more and more comedy seems to be turning ugly.

This observation came to me after several recent visits to a local comedy club to see a friend who's trying to break into the biz of professional laugh makers.

Want to know what people are chuckling at these days? AIDS, herpes, minorities, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, anorexia, bulimia and physical handicaps.

Hilarious stuff.

Many of the aspiring comedians, I'll admit, are saddled with a major handicap: They simply ain't funny, McGee.

On one hand, I'm comforted in knowing that, for the most part, it's not the pros I've been watching. Instead of the weekend shows that feature veteran comics who have honed their acts for years, I've been going on "new talent" nights when upwards of a dozen rookie comics are showcased. Sometimes more experienced comedians are there, but just to try out new material.

The disturbing part is realizing that this so-called humor comes straight off the street. Oozing out of the mouths of these amateurs are jokes that are circulating in business offices, at parties and--from the tone of so many--on chain gangs.

The majority of the performers at these shows are white, (presumably) heterosexual males, so many of their jokes are directed at anyone who doesn't fall into that category: blacks, Asians, Latinos, women and gays. A few even profess an "enlightened" attitude: "I respect all races," said one, "including black people--especially in big groups."

This, apparently, is the now comedy. Comedy at someone else's expense. Comedy of ridicule, even of hate--men hating women, whites hating blacks, straights hating gays, slim hating heavy.

The few black comics I've seen usually avoid anti-white humor, instead aiming their insults at gays. (Asked one black comedian: "If a gay person is sentenced to prison, is it really punishment?")

And, of course, because AIDS has struck more homosexuals than heterosexuals, it's acceptable in front of predominantly heterosexual audiences to joke about a horribly terminal affliction.

Occasionally a woman takes the stage, at which time the frequently misogynistic humor of men comics is returned in kind. And virtually all of the acts attack people who are overweight. Here's a relatively mild example: "My girlfriend is really fat. When I ask her where she wants to go to eat, she says, 'Vons.' "

The key word here is hostility.

At its best, comedy lets us laugh at our own foibles. In Woody Allen's new movie "Hannah and Her Sisters," he hilariously captures the universal tensions of a first date when, years later, he reminds Dianne Wiest of the night when "we did everything but exchange gunshots." In less talented hands, however, those tensions are expressed by the aspiring comic who says he hates paying a hooker "for the same thing I can get in a bar for $8 to $10 worth of drinks."

This, I fear, is the outgrowth of the leering, sniggering attitude in a flood of juvenile teen sex films in recent years ("Porky's"--1 through 3, "Weird Science" and any movie with the word "Summer" in the title) and the TV sitcom--appealing to the lowest common denominator, which seems to get lower every year.

Sure, there has always been an aggressive, biting edge to a lot of humor. Groucho Marx, master of the acerbic put-down, and W. C. Fields, the man who said, "Anyone who hates children and dogs can't be all bad," were often pointed, occasionally angry, but never hateful. And their barbs were always vented at deserving targets, such as thugs, overstuffed politicians or society snobs.

One of my favorite screen comedians is the late French writer, director and actor Jacques Tati, whose kind, almost loving sense of humor celebrated human imperfections--not ridiculed them.

But as a co-worker pointed out recently, it seems that invoking degrading stereotypes in the name of humor is OK again, now that we've gone through the social consciousness raising of the '60s and '70s and realize that we don't really mean it.

Of course, the jokes themselves show that we haven't truly transcended our baser instincts. And that's nothing to laugh about.

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