I’m not sure it’s time to be alarmed. There are, though, debates, even discussions, about this. I’m troubled by it myself. It’s a very simple matter, really: Is America draining away its reserves of laughter? Don’t laugh. Recently, a friend was ruffling through his guide to cable television, America’s IV tube, trying to find something that didn’t require laughing. You see, he’s used up his laughs. He’s got a spare tank in his wine cellar, but he’s determined to bring it out only in a national emergency. - The Big Three networks, the doddering behemoths that began this whole sorry affair, were dishing out panfuls of 30-minute nuggets like “Roseanne,” “Married With Children,” “Cheers,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “The Cosby Show.” Fox, the upstart urchin, was battering screens with the hand-drawn “The Simpsons” and the noisy barrage of “In Living Color.” And shunting along the cable into my friend’s living room came boxcars of standup comics, talk shows, cartoons, game shows, reruns of “I Love Lucy” and the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Mr. Ed.” My friend--his name’s Howard--was not smiling as he surveyed this smorgasbord of laugh-provoking to brush your teeth and go to bed.
Alas, however, there is solid evidence that laughter is running out. It is becoming increasingly common in certain situations to bark at what passes for comedy. That’s right. Bark. This has become a chic way of responding on a well-known, but best unmentioned, talk show. Not too long ago in Chicago, one of the cable networks, a perpetrator in this conspiracy, was taping one of its comedian stars for a special program. Before the camera began whirring, a producer admonished the studio audience not to bark. No barking. Just laughing. This producer seemed to realize that laughter is drying up. Now we bark.
It used to be, and this is ancient history now, that humor, and comedy, evoked a range of interesting, more human reactions. Chuckling was an entry-level, modestly mirthful, bemused response to exceedingly clever, wry humor. Reading Robert Benchley induced chuckling. But as I say, that’s history. Chortling, more voluble and, to observers, seemingly life-threatening (in its passing resemblance to choking), is a relative of chuckling, although it is more common in situations suffused with wicked irreverence. Chortling is more highly developed in England, where the art of satirical skewering has reached greater heights than it has in her former colonies. Guffaws, those explosive exhibitions of hilarity, emerged in response to the ridiculous, the lunatic, the patently absurd, from slapstick to stand-up comedy. The skein along which these vocal outbursts cling is laughter.
Could it be that barking is the next step in the evolutionary progression from the chuckle? I don’t think so. Rather, I believe it represents the well’s running dry. There used to be a lot of laughter, in all its many grades. Then along came television, which, like oil companies scouting the plains of Texas or the Alaskan tundra, realized that there were some pretty deep reserves. The thing that needed to be done was to extract those laughs in great quantities and sell them to advertisers. And sell they did. The more laughs extracted, the more sold to advertisers. And just as oil companies proliferated in response (more or less) to the teen-age urge to cruise slowly down Main Street in chrome-tipped, eight-cylinder automobiles, we now have The Comedy Channel and the HA! network. See what I mean? Visionaries.
Sorting out the fate of laughter in America is not easy. The number of engineers mining laughter has grown, not coincidentally, in lock-step proportion to the remunerative rewards such a profession yields. That means that a lot more people are manufacturing humor in America than ever before and making more money doing it. Not surprisingly, many of them are among the smartest people coming out of America’s colleges, people who are quite comfortable sneering at their colleagues in the disintegrating worlds of investment banking and corporate law. Humor, you see, is an industry. There are barons of this industry, vice presidents, scientists, R&D.; A lot of planning goes into being funny. Can’t let the amateurs have it all to themselves.
AS IN LAW, BUSINESS AND MEDICINE, the newer flowers of American humor have been cultivated at Harvard College, at a snooty little magazine-producing club called the Harvard Lampoon. If exclusivity breeds desire, then hope for membership in the Lampoon stirs something more like lust. At its best, the namesake magazine, which appears six times during the school year, is an ingenious assemblage of literate, cerebral, sometimes daring wit; at its worst, it is sophomoric stupidity (ah, they say, but that’s the point). It remains, through it all, the only boot camp for humor writing in America. The Lampoon has spawned wave after wave of comedy writers (Poonies, in the dialect) infiltrating and taking command of laughter mining and production in this country.
To industry executives, this seems natural. “These are very bright people who are prolific writers. They can really knock it out,” says Steve Hewitt, a Showtime Networks executive whose responsibilities include pumping as much comedy as possible into the schedule. As senior vice president of original programming and production, he maintains that reliability and training set the Poonies apart from other aspiring comedy writers: “They can do something on a deadline. It’s not ‘Call me when I get funny.’ And two, where would you go for a talent pool of comedy writers in the world? If you want somebody good in business, you get somebody from Wharton. When you want a comedy writer, certainly source one is the Harvard Lampoon.”
There is something to be said for this, although a visitor from Mars might find it curiously insidious that Harvardites, not content with jousting in the Supreme Court over weighty constitutional issues or finding a cure for cancer, are bulldozing their way into the laughter industry. In 1971, Poonies founded the independent humor magazine National Lampoon. Since 1982, they have come and gone on the ladder of laughter success at “Late Night with David Letterman.” Letterman, who wears his middle-age with boyish insouciance, is a master of the campy, conspiratorial humor that keeps white males in the 18-to-25 age range up after Johnny Carson has put Mom and Dad to bed. Where Carson, as one television producer puts it, “represents playing by the rules,” Letterman makes it appear that he’s still looking for them. Carson wouldn’t tell the world that the best use for Robert Bork’s beard is as a “babe magnet.”
Paul Simms, a 25-year-old former Lampoon writer, is not alone in considering his move to the Letterman writers pool the next step. “I got on the Lampoon when I was a freshman, and it’s just a fun place to be,” Simms recalls of this not-so-distant memory. “You’re around other funny people. Once you’re there, it suddenly seems easier to get ahead. You do have an advantage. It’s just that you get some kind of contact and some sense that someone like you went there and did it. You are helped by knowing and being helped by other Lampoon people.”
Many of the writers on television’s top-rated situation comedies also wear the Lampoon coat of arms. There was a front-page headline in the New York Post a while ago announcing the triumph of Bart Simpson over Bill Cosby in the great ratings war, at least for one week. Leading the assault was a team of writers that included four former presidents of the Lampoon, headed by George Meyer. Poonies are seeded throughout other sitcoms, sort of like M & Ms on a cement floor, from “Designing Women” to “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Lampoon scribblers churn out new programs on cable channels as well.
If there was one television show in the past two decades that redefined the way in which comedy was written and performed in America, it was “Saturday Night Live,” a show that caught the imagination of jaded Vietnam-era college graduates and at the same time managed to drag much of the rest of America down a tunnel of lunacy populated by killer bees, Coneheads and Emily Litella. “It was the first TV for us,” says Conan O’Brien, who was 12 when the first 90 minutes of “Saturday Night” ran in 1975. “Before that, it was all Dean Martin in tuxedos. On ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the house band wore jeans. A lot of the appeal was the look.”
The show’s longtime chief writer, spoken of somewhat reverently as “the comedy writer’s comedy writer,” James Downey, is ex-Lampoon. For the past 3 1/2 years, O’Brien has been a writer on the program. He, too, hails from the Lampoon. But what’s important here isn’t that “Saturday Night Live” was created by Poonies--it wasn’t--but that it was seen as a place for the type of writing being done at the Lampoon in Cambridge. “At the Lampoon,” O’Brien says, “you didn’t have to please anyone. You could write pieces that only five people would get.”
Thanks in large part to “Saturday Night Live,” literate America, especially its younger members, bathed as they were in the maturing rays of the boob tube, grew less scornful of televised entertainment than their stodgy elders. Kurt Andersen, editor of Spy magazine (and, of course, ex of the Harvard Lampoon) remembers this transformation.
“Something happened around the time I got out of college in 1976. The stigma of going into television and the movies disappeared. In 1975, there was a stigma and, in 1980, there wasn’t. And so, for these talented kids--it’s not as if they would have all gone to work for the New Yorker or write funny books; they probably would have all become lawyers with a good sense of humor--somewhere around then, with ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the rise of comedy as a well-paid profession in Hollywood, this became a professional track. And the Lampoon became a pre-professional crucible rather than just an anarchic, larkish student adventure.”
AS THE LAMPOON’S INSULAR INNOCENCE began to curdle, Poonies streamed into television studios on coasts East and West, surrounded by a Galahadian aura. But this Ivy League presence, as visible as it became, collided with television’s inherent tendency to bottom dwell, to pursue those lowest-common-denominator nutrients that seem so filling but provide little nourishment. At the same time, the biggest change since the invention of the tube occurred.
Somewhere between 1975 and 1980--the mists of time have a way of fogging our telescope--cable television became an accepted feature of American life. The infant cable networks struggled to win viewers without spending any money, or at least not too much money. Steve Hewitt worked at HBO then and was there when the cable network figured out that comedy, stand-up comedy, was the grail everyone had been looking for. “I Love Lucy” reruns just weren’t enough. “To make a television show of one person standing on a stage telling us jokes is probably the least expensive form of programming, other than a talk show,” he says, “It turned out to be outrageously successful. And I think it turned out to be successful for one important reason, and that was, for the first time, Americans were able to hear risque jokes in their living rooms.”
Oh, sure, television comedy existed before the stand-up phenomenon. There are people alive today who watched “The Honeymooners” when it aired after dinner, not after bedtime. Ditto “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “Leave It to Beaver.” These are the same people who never got out of the BarcaLounger to change the channel, not because the electric zapper hadn’t been invented but because there wasn’t much point--there were only three channels anyway. Now there are, at least in progressive communities favoring post-1960s domestic architecture, more than 100 channels, and the zapper is glued to the BarcaLounger. Of those 100, half usually feature comic offerings. (Bruce Springsteen has commented on this state of affairs with a new song, “57 Channels & Nothing On.”)
New channels are popping up overnight with one strategic goal: draining those last drops of laughter. After HBO’s Comedy Channel, which debuted in 1989, the most recent example is the HA! network, owned by Viacom International and offering a crayon palette of comedy programs developed for the network by mostly young, underpaid, Ivy Leaguers. Ian Maxtone-Graham, not of the Lampoon but of the Ivy League, is a producer for the new network, which patches its shows together in an ever-so-slightly-seedy office building in New York. “We have a show called ‘Afterdrive,’ which is ‘David Letterman’ on a budget. We have a show called ‘Clash,’ which is ‘Jeopardy’ on a budget. We have a sketch show, which is ‘Saturday Night Live’ on a budget.”
“Clash,” which recently completed its first season, pits groups of contestants who are natural adversaries against each other, such as Dentists vs. Cavity-Free People, or Nudists vs. Fashion Designers, or Insurance Salesmen vs. People Who Have Lots of Accidents. Each side struggles to answer questions in categories that, well, that don’t spring to mind every time you ask for a bagel with a schmear.
“I’ll take ‘Moving to Liechtenstein,’ ” screamed a member of the team consisting of People Who Think Sulu’s a Helmsman (its opponents being People Who Think, No, He’s More of a Navigator). And the question was “You’ll be happy to know that Liechtenstein is a great place to spend your twilight years especially because one of the country’s major products is--A: toupees, B: false teeth, C: knitting needles.” Contestants go home with items like the Graviton Space Gyro. You get the idea.
Maxtone-Graham doesn’t pretend that this amounts to reworking Proust. “Comedy,” he says, “has become the disco of the ‘90s.” As for HA!, its birth last April means it can’t be seen in good chunks of America (the east bank of the Hudson River and the San Fernando Valley, for instance). But, as Maxtone-Graham says, “We’re golden in Las Vegas.”
Which brings us back to Hewitt’s observation that cable could for the first time force-feed risque humor into American living rooms (something the petty rules at the Federal Communications Commission have discouraged). At first, cable’s inclination was to rely on the sort of stand-up comics that appeared on “The Tonight Show” or, in the neolithic era, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But, almost as an experiment in 1976 and 1977, HBO put on a show of young, unknown comedians who had been working in the handful of comedy clubs in Los Angeles and New York. “The Annual Young Comedians Show” featured future stars such as Robin Williams and Jay Leno. What HBO discovered was that the ratings (indices that measure the amount of laughter that can be sold to advertisers) were the same for the young unknowns as the old knowns. HBO executives went “aha!”
This is how Hewitt explains what happened next. “What we look for is a very edgy comedy, meaning someone who is dealing with subject matter that you wouldn’t play during Thanksgiving dinner, that would be played after 11 o’clock at night, someone you might want to protect your kids from. We’re also looking for more G-rated comedy, observational humor that does not rely on language for its punch line and does not rely on heavy subject matter for its humor.”
So these are our choices: foul-mouthed or pabulum comics. Hewitt, because he works for a company that exists to drain laugh reservoirs, knows this. Hewitt, because he’s perceptive, also rues this devolution. “What do good writers want to do? Stretch boundaries. Satire. Satire. Satire. And that’s what most comedy writers, what most comedians would want to do. Satire and sendups. They want to take the world and put it on its nose.
“But,” he goes on, “there’s been a clear rejection on the part of audiences for satire and sendups. Quantifiable. If I put on a show that attempts to be a satire of television, there are going to be measurably fewer viewers interested in watching that than a stand-up comedian who gets up and it’s a clear proposition--'I’m going to tell a joke. You’re going to laugh.’ I’m worried about this.”
Here, Hewitt approaches revealed truths: “Great humor needs a tremendous knowledge base to be appreciated. Most people had no idea what Mort Sahl was talking about because he was dealing in a very selective world of politics. So I have a great fear that the Andrew Dice Clay generation is not well-read enough, is not politically aware or astute enough to appreciate what I would call really involved humor. That’s why they don’t have patience with storytellers. They want to know ‘Where are we going? Where is the fart here?’ It’s basically an ‘Animal House’ mentality, and the ‘Animal House’ comics have done very well. And the storytellers, the ones who don’t use language to shock you into getting your attention, haven’t.”
The result, of course, is what we see on tubes in living rooms across America.
STAND-UPS ARE THE SHOCK troops in this effort to pump more laughter. Given the problems the Census Bureau is having counting us normal human beings, it’s no wonder that we don’t have a precise tally of comedians. Estimates of 10,000 are bandied about backstage at comedy clubs. Like the proverbial snowball hurtling down a mountainside, comedy clubs and television comedy grew bigger together.
Chris Albrecht, who used to own the Improv in New York, one of the first comedy clubs in the country, and is now an HBO executive in Los Angeles, is something of an expert on comedy. “It happened because as cable started to become a platform for comedians, more people became interested in the comedy form. You had a lot of young people watching comedy, starting to try comedy and willing to go to local restaurants, bars to hear it. Bar owners saw the opportunity. A lot of guys said it looked pretty easy.” Shazam! Hundreds of comedy clubs.
A lot of people in America think they’re funny, and now they have the chance to prove it to roomfuls of people. The only problem is, as a random visit to a comedy club generally bears out, a lot of people who think they’re funny aren’t. Take a recent night at New York’s Catch a Rising Star, a crucial testing ground for up-and-coming comics. It was a typical evening with the emcee, whose name shall remain justly obscure, polling members of the audience about their hometowns--"Cleveland? Cleveland? You can’t be serious.” (The laugh is supposed to go here.)
Then he brought on the evening’s first comedian, who began with the insight, laden with monosyllabic adjectives that seemed to favor F as their first letter, that drinking tends to impair the reaction time of motorists. Pause. “Why doesn’t Detroit make Nerf cars?” Silence. “Soooo, what is going on . . .” Then the red light came on, and he was gone.
Comic No. 2 was a black woman who devoted much of her time to discussions of comparative male anatomy, black and white. When she got to the opposite sex, she wondered, “Why is it when they show a white woman’s breasts on television, it’s pornography, but when they show a black woman’s breasts, it’s anthropology?”
Comic No. 3, a rather pudgy fellow, regaled us at length about his eating problems and his devotion to a food group known as Pudding Pops. He moved on to the apparently bottomless well from which just about every comic draws--jokes, or efforts thereof, about the male anatomy.
Comic numero quattro did inane impressions--Brando, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson--and was followed by a fifth jokester, who juggled and seemed convinced that great mirth must accompany any contemplation of condoms and Crisco. That’s the way it went.
Carol Leifer, an ebullient, blondish comedian, who has become very successful with regular visits on “Letterman,” her own specials on Showtime and headliner status at major clubs around the country, says that too many people in the comedy pool have made it difficult for serious swimming.
“To me, the biggest effect of the boom has been that the quality of the comedy has gone down,” she says. “I have a rider in my contract now that I just put in. It ensures that only certain people open for me because I got tired of watching people whose acts were women bashing and gay bashing and these horribly mean acts.
“Comedy has become generic with that many people,” she explains. “There are so many people out there that you could sample a few routines, then put together a generic act that will work in a club, with hack premises and trite things that everybody knows have been done. Something an audience wouldn’t know is a hack premise, a comedian would know has been done to death.”
Leifer also places much of the blame on audiences. “I think people don’t want to think as much. I’m not sure why. Because it’s not encouraged? Too time-consuming? I thought being entertained involved a certain amount of thinking, especially with comedy, with really good comedy. Your really good comedians out there, you really have to listen to.”
She used to write sketches for “Saturday Night Live,” but unlike most writers whose fulfillment lies in moving words around on computer screens, she wanted the words coming out of her mouth, not some actor’s. “It was kind of frustrating being in the background,” she says.
On stage, Leifer seems genuinely pleased, and her ideas, in a strange way, seem sucked out of the audience itself. She wanders through her routines, a mix of pungent observation and personal experience twisted weirdly into recognizable unrecognizability, with a gentle ease, a trace of bewilderment over the way things are lingering in the air. Exercise she hates: “Working out?” she says, her voice uncoiling in disdain. “Basically my philosophy is no pain, huh, no pain.” And, as do many women comics, she frets about the perils of dating: “I dated an optometrist. I’ll never do that again. We were in bed and he kept going, ‘Better like this or better like this?’ ”
Although Bill Hicks is at the other end of the spectrum--brash, even offensive, slightly lunatic commentary comedy--he agrees with Leifer’s appraisal of the state of their business. Hicks, successful with his own HBO special and appearances across the country, seems almost astonished at what he does for a living. “The idea that you could actually make money doing this is bizarre, you know. For me, it’s worked out well because I love comedy. But when you get 10,000 comedians out there, they’re not all on the cutting edge of creativity, I can tell you that.”
Hicks is a pacer, disheveled, hunched over his cigarette, a shock of brown hair falling over his glasses, the wheels of his oddly assembled cerebrum audibly ratcheting, or so it seems. Long pauses fill the time between the rush of words that batter his audience to attention. Hicks detests wishy-washy tendencies in music, politics, art or thinking in general. He’s convinced that we live on “the third mall from the sun"--a dangerous place.
Unlike a lot of comedians, Hicks’ material--often laced with language not bantered about over the Thanksgiving turkey--is tightly tied to a political perspective that sees the country going mad around him. His first album, “Dangerous,” carries a warning label quoting Thomas Jefferson: “Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books shall be sold and what we may buy?” He knows his style of comedy doesn’t go down easily. It’s not Wonder bread. “Most people go to me, ‘Oh, you’re so negative.’ To me, I’m a realist. I talk about freedom and how you can be free. ‘Oh, you’re so cynical.’ Well, only sheep would say that. Only a sheep doesn’t believe it can be free.” Hicks sighs, drags on one of his ever-present cigarettes (“I go through two lighters a day”) and then says, “People will wake up. I’m kind of betting my life on it.
It’s no small surprise that television baffles Hicks. “I find it frightening that people in this country can watch TV at all. And the idea that there are people in this country going ‘Shhhh, “Family Ties” is coming on’ just spooks me. And there’s so many shows. Who’s watching these things? I guess a lot of people. Someone seems to be making a lot of money. I used to think, and to some degree still do, that show business is a big satanic cult.”
IT WOULD BE WRONG, TO APPROPRIATE Dick Nixon’s favorite phrase, to suggest that the sole source of comedy, the single machine for producing laughs, is the web of television sitcoms, comedy shows, comedy clubs and cable comedy channels. Although hard to find, there is a small, and growing smaller, pocket of literary humor that clings like lichen to the nooks and crannies of American culture that haven’t yet been coated with stick-resistant gloss.
For those whose television is broken, a visit to a bookstore will turn up funny printed things by the likes of Calvin Trillin, Fran Leibowitz, P. J. O’Rourke, Dave Barry. Flipping the pages of a bound volume uncovers some very clever work being done on computer keyboards in country houses around America.
In fact, there are some humor writers who think it’s a good thing to fend off the masses and pluck laughs from a more select audience, the way you’d sip an ’82 Lynch Bages instead of guzzling Gallo from a jug. Kurt Andersen is one of these people. As editor of Spy magazine, he’s got his sights set higher than your average television audience and is quite content. As Steve Hewitt sees it, “the television audience is really a drag-racing audience, people who go to drag races, people who like to party hearty.” Not Spy’s audience.
“Stand-up comedy, like television, only requires that you sit there. Whereas most of what we do--we do some silly slapsticky things as well--but most of what we do requires a level of engagement and a breadth of cultural knowledge and lucidness. The true density of the magazine every month requires something of the readers that stand-up doesn’t. Its humor isn’t as easy to get as stand-up, as TV. Because their audience is such a broad democratic collection of people, the content of their material inherently has to be what it was like to grow up Catholic, dating, all these sort of lowest-common-denominator subjects. Whereas we have the luxury of a relatively small audience and all pretty educated. We have the luxury of alluding both to what it’s like to date but also to Harold Bloom and the Jetsons.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, Andersen’s Harvard Lampoon start (of which he modestly notes, “It’s not the wellspring of comedy and humor. But it’s the beginning of an important strand.”), Spy remains the most prominent humor journal in the country. Shipped monthly to 65,000 subscribers across the country and bought on newsstands by 80,000 additional readers (Time, in contrast, circulates to 4 million homes), it is not the widest-read magazine around. “It will always be an acquired taste,” Andersen insists. At one time in the distant past--the 1930s--the New Yorker was a funny, witty, irreverent magazine, but now with its endless series on such fascinating subjects as grain production, it manages only to look good on coffee tables.
Spy is not an easy read. If you live in Podunk and bowl on Wednesday nights, you’re not going to want to try Spy. It is a goulash, where the letters column reveals readers who worry about Ronald Reagan’s brown suits, pen knowledgeable epistles about Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and compose endless anagrams (Arsenio Hall Show: He’s Shallow on Air).
Elsewhere, one finds a 15-step diagram to John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, reportage on the National Endowment for the Arts’ generosity to established artists with comfortable, and visible, cash flows, or an expose of our nation’s tendency to parade about in immense padded costumes, in the manner of Mickey Mouse, the San Diego Chicken and Mr. Snuffleupagus, a performance style Spy dubs American Kabuki. One learns about the burrs of litigation that cling to Sylvester Stallone (neighbor Vin Scully sued the Rock for poor flood-control landscaping), how often Liz Smith mentions herself in her New York Daily News gossip column (1.2 times a day) and the peccadilloes of Donald Trump (he cashed a check for 13 cents that Spy sent to him and other asset-burdened New Yorkers to ferret out a man’s price).
As one would expect, the villain in the mix is television, which partly explains why Spy’s first foray into television--an unsuccessful special hosted by comedian Jerry Seinfeld last year--has only recently been followed up with a second attempt, “Spy TV Pranks,” submitted to NBC. Television watchers, Andersen believes, can’t read his magazine. The tube has had an effect on humor, he says, “by reducing people’s attention spans and making people less willing to read. It makes printed humor a more difficult row to hoe. Our readers aren’t contemptuous of TV. They may think it’s all crap, but they’re willing to engage it because they were the children of the TV generation. There’s a different regard for it. To me, all the comedy channels, the HA! channel, the stand-up comedy on TV all the time, to me, it’s a glut. Literary humor? It’s a tiny market.”
Really far out on the edge, there’s a magazine of irregular appearance, written by professional comedy writers for comedy writers, a photocopied collection of creativity called Army Man: America’s Only Magazine. It lingers in a sort of netherworld of what its crafters call “metahumor,” a humor so involuted, so intertwining the absurd, the stupid and the clever that it walks a line invisible to most of the world. For its readers, though, that line is everything. Two of the more arcane examples of this art form:
The biggest shortcoming of our nation’s zoos? They never seem to have enough different kinds of antelopes. (Please note: I’m being sarcastic.)
I saw a clever
the other day
JUST SO YOU KNOW, THE WRITERS of Army Man are the same people who bring you the jokes on “Letterman,” “Saturday Night Live,” assorted sitcoms and the shopping carts of cable-channel humor. At the networks, this is not the sort of thing that really hauls in the laughs. In fact, metahumor, the higher math of comedy writing, veers toward the increasingly obscure in direct relation to the predictability of television humor. Along the hallways where TV executives get paid a lot of money to do the right thing, the first alarm bells over the humor crisis are beginning to clang.
“The appetite is still there, we think,” Steve Hewitt contends. “But my gut tells me that we are beginning to get up to the apex of this phenomenon.” Chris Albrecht of HBO is only a shade more confident. “If these two new channels--the Comedy Channel and HA!--remain successful, we have a way to go before we reach the apex. If not, then we’re there. The jury’s still out.” (The jury did come in, and on March 1, the two struggling cable channels will combine their operations under the anemic brand name of Comedy TV.)
Other juries are still out. At dinner the other night, a writer on “Saturday Night Live” was worrying aloud about two shows in a row that were clunkers. “Lorne Michaels (the show’s producer and originator) came in and gave us this very sarcastic talk. ‘So you think you’re such great writers. You’re such funny people. That really was a great show.’ We all knew it was a terrible show. But what could we say?”
I’ve been thinking about that little group-therapy session over at Rockefeller Center. It makes me wonder if we’re getting to the bottom of the well. To rephrase Hunter Thompson, is the hog out of the tunnel? The experts surely aren’t convinced. Michaels and his crew are still cranking away. Over at Showtime, Hewitt in his amply windowed 37th-floor office is crafting new strategies to pump more laughter out of BarcaLounger spuds, as is Albrecht in Century City.
Aha! you say. Laughter isn’t a finite resource like oil. Think of it more as caviar, an endless, renewing supply of salty fish eggs. Or Christmas trees, chopped, packed and shipped, reseeded and regrown. Just add tinsel. I wish it were so. My friend Howard, the one with the novel-length cable guide, is my private Gallup Poll, with a plus-or-minus error margin of zero. He’s dried up. All that’s left are football games to fill up the gap between the World Series and the spring exhibition season.
This is not to say that we won’t be hearing a lot more laugh-tracked situation comedy throughout the next decade. Maybe even Michaels will be putting the “Saturday Night Live” team through its paces and David Letterman will let us know the Top 10 reasons he’s still on the air. I wonder, though, whether this will be greeted in living rooms across America with a spreading quiet, a discreet cough, the final click to electronic silence. If you wander through the corridors of laugh baronies, where the lords of the industry worry about laugh extraction, you’ll see a lot of closed doors. I don’t know what’s going on behind them. I saw someone towing a cocker spaniel into one room. I’m sure a few of these giants, the visionaries, are plotting how to open up these fields of barking, whole new reserves, untapped, copious, virgin.
Me? I’d rather laugh.