COMEDY REVIEW : 20 Years After Chicago, Hoffman the Comic Is Grasping at Jokes

Times Staff Writer

The career of Abbie Hoffman, who played the Palomino Thursday night, reached its apogee in the hurly-burly of the '60s. As a co-founder of the Yippies and a co-defendant at the trial of the Chicago Seven, he helped inject a certain Marat/Sade theatrical flair into the grinding mills of American jurisprudence and brought the counterculture to the center of America's media eye.

Hoffman has shifted gears into the '80s with the smoothness of a Ferrari Testarossa. The name of the game now is self-promotion. He has a new book out (from which he quotes on stage). But he has no act.

That shouldn't be surprising. One reason the movement self-destructed to the extent that it did is that the cry for human rights--as it warped and woofed out of supercilious mouths like Hoffman's--separated itself from a concern for human dignity. It was the tie-dye kids against the rubes over 30.

Translated into show-biz terms, this means that Hoffman seems to have such contempt for his audience that he won't stoop to anything resembling performance skills. If you're looking for wit, structure, engagement, surprise, the pleasure of surrendering to an artist's control, or even a reasoned polemic, you're out of luck.

The Palomino audience, consisting largely of a generation of young people who seemed genuinely curious about what Hoffman had to say, paid $10 a head to hear him ask a truly au courant question: "How many of you out there have slept with Warren Beatty?"

Maybe the paranoia of having been busted so many times has informed Hoffman's mode of address. Or maybe his reach for a joke exceeds his grasp.

"My kid says, 'If America is a boiling pot, then the Indians must have been boiled alive.' So the teacher says, 'Get out!' My kid majors in halls." Fun- ny !

Hoffman drew parallels between the Eisenhower '50s and the Reagan '80s. (This includes references to a Teflon president who can't pronounce the names of nations. Hoffman translates Reagan's reference to Latin America, "down there," as boyish sexual guilt.)

He vilifies the ignorance of the kids coming up ("We saw 'Eyes on the Prize,' " he recalls a student telling him, "but who was that guy Malcolm 10 (meaning Malcolm X)?"

On the gang problem: "Oh no, it has nothing to do with poverty and the fact that the schools don't teach anything," he said sarcastically, unmindful of his own anti-intellectualism.

There's unquestionably an intelligence and concern--and a documented suffering--that underlies Hoffman's awkward appearance (he has a slightly Joe Cocker-ish toppling manner, as though he's suffering cramps). But there was a certain provincial East Coast arrogance in his attitude: What could be more dated than that Warren Beatty crack?

Either he didn't want to give much, or, like '60s acid spokesman Timothy Leary, he thinks he can throw out a few emblematic flares--his allusions to the cannibalism of the Left and Vanna White's dopiness--before scuttling behind the protective cover of incoherence.

His act was being videotaped. Several times he looked into the camera and said, "Hi, Mom." Maybe that was a clue, as well as anything else, to a played-out psychodrama.

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