THE LAST LAUGH : What Made Comedy a Yuk a Minute in the '70s Has Been Replaced With '90s Mediocrity

The post-recession '70s crushed in on me. I jumped behind the wheel, desperate for release if not escape. I headed for L.A.'s hottest comedy stop.

Free parking was a cinch. My eyes scanned the marquee. I wanted a whiff of the newcomers. Unknowns took chances, and even when bad, usually proved fascinating. Besides, talent nights and off nights were all I could afford. And management didn't complain if I nursed my one-and-only drink through the set.

I breezed through the door after the pro forma ID check and teensy cover charge. In the main room, my eyes swept the wide crescent for a cozy squat. To sit up front was to risk being foil to somebody's shtick, being coaxed onstage for major embarrassment, or getting an unexpected cleaning bill. So I'd sit mid-room, or snare an unreserved booth. Wrapping myself around my increasingly watery Cuba libre , I lost my private worries in the public personas of the laugh-makers.

Rudy Ray Moore was forbidden fruit and Lenny Bruce overdosed before I lost my baby fat, but catching Mort Sahl live at the hungry i, on San Francisco's North Beach, a decade after the beatnik heyday, jump-started my love affair with laugh houses. But as they mushroomed in the '80s, intimacy gave way to trend, and then to a new wave of non-traditional comics. In these barely post-recession '90s, as rampant greed breeds self-censorship, the guffaws are fewer and further between.

We arrive on time. Parking is terrible and expensive. I have reservations for my daughter's birthday, certain we are going to catch Bobcat Goldthwait's act. Then, while paying for our tickets, we discover Bobcat isn't on the bill. But it's a special evening so we stay, mollified by one recognizable name, a young black comic starring in his first movie.

Inside, we discover seating is first come, first served. Then why did we have to stand in line for an hour when we had reservations and there was no earlier show? Reservations, we're told, are the management's body count. Not enough? Then the show is canceled. As for the line, customers double as involuntary shills, a draw for walk-ins.

There are barely 30 people in a room that'll seat 150. We're sandwiched into the far right corner, making for uncomfortable neck craning. My husband points out that the joint isn't exactly jumping, but he's forced to ask for our money back before we're seated elsewhere.

We're invited to play the raffle. Prizes will be awarded over the phone, we're told. Patiently we fill out our little red raffle tickets. As we chew on pasteboard-flavored munchables and slurp overpriced drinks, the show begins.

From beyond the stale--out trots one retread after another. A couple have mined news headlines for source material but instead of caustic, witty asides or imaginative sendups, we're fed high-school-level pap--not even as good as elephant jokes. No risks taken here and (gasp!) no four-letter words. Two are so unoriginal they manage to tell the same joke in the same set. I manage to get off a couple of solid boos despite my husband's disparaging elbow and my daughter's chastising "Mom!"

Oh, for the caustic smarts of a Sahl, the imagination of a Jay Leno, the savvy wit of a Steve Allen, the razor tongue of an Eddie Murphy, even the rude nastiness of an Andrew Dice Clay. Our evening is barely saved by the young comic, who skirts Pryor-like slams at white folk for funny, poignant and rare glimpses into the black psyche, and one hard-drinking holdover from the Smothers Brothers era. But even they fail to dispel the blatant pathos of mediocrity dying to be discovered by TV sitcoms.

"Congratulations! You took part in our club's door-prize lottery! You're a winner."

"Great. What did I win?"

"A free evening of fun at our club with a maximum of 15 guests."

"Hmmmm. Uh--well, thanks, but no thanks."

"You don't want your prize?"

"Some other time." I hang up.

Twasn't a bit funny, McGee.

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