Considering that 1996 was a presidential election year, by comedic measure it was the year that wasn't. Between the meticulously spin-doctored candidates and the hyper-manicured conventions, it was hard enough to get interested in voting, let alone laughing. Aside from the perfunctory late-night monologue one-liners (Clinton--chubby adulterer, Dole--really old mean guy), it was a decidedly off year for political comedy, though a few hardy souls--Bill Maher, Al Franken, Harry Shearer--did the best they could with the available raw material.
As for the rest of the comedy cosmos '96, what follows is an entirely partial, unscientifically assembled list of significant events, ranked in no particular order of importance or laughability:
1. THE RETURN OF EDDIE MURPHY. Sure, his comeback vehicle, "The Nutty Professor," rolled along on fat jokes and a couple of displays of phenomenal gassiness, but as far as fat jokes and gas attacks go, these really were funny--a word that hasn't been associated with Mr. Murphy in quite some time. Give him some bonus points too--not only did he bring sweetness to the title role, but he also gleefully portrayed a testosterone-drenched villain who was basically a sendup of himself.
2. THE "ELLEN" QUESTION. Is she or isn't she: Lebanese? Left-handed? A librarian? The question that had all of America twitching nervously on the sofa? Uh, no, not really. Why not give the poor character somebody--anybody--to cuddle with already. The nation can handle Dennis Rodman in boas and eye shadow--it can handle Ellen stepping out of whatever closet she's been rummaging in.
3. JANEANE GAROFALO. Her ascendancy to pop icon status means we may be entering some kind of enlightened Golden Age. The ascendancy of Jenny McCarthy to pop icon status means these are indeed the end times.
4. ROSIE O'DONNELL. Just when it looked like the entire chatty realm of afternoon talk shows had turned into something so thoroughly debased, so unspeakably foul, along comes O'Donnell to add a touch of class, a heap of humor and--wonder of wonders--nearly guilt-free watchability. Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin can rest easy--the torch has been passed.
5. SITCOM HOPE? The bad sitcoms--you know who you are--were as horrible as ever. But the good ones--"Seinfeld," "Frasier," "NewsRadio," "Mad About You"--got even smarter and funnier. "The Larry Sanders Show" remained reason enough to buy a TV, and the funniest, edgiest satire anywhere continued to come from a humble cartoon, the remarkable "Simpsons."
6. "FARGO." On the big screen, the year's best laughs came from this deadpan tale of a bungled kidnapping set in the snowbound suburbs of Minneapolis. In a positive development at the multiplexes, the "Dumb and Dumber"-spawned genre of loudly, proudly "stoopid" comedies ("Cable Guy," "Kingpin") wasn't all that appealing to audiences (though the inexplicable film career of Adam Sandler continued to thrive).
7. HBO's BRILLIANTLY TWISTED "MR. SHOW." The series proved that, despite the dim, drooping efforts of "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV," sketch comedy doesn't have to be numbingly unfunny. In fact, in the capable hands of Mr. Showmen Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, sketch work became sharp and hilarious for a full half-hour at a time.
8. STANDING TALL. A couple of veteran stand-ups were at the top of their form in '96. Chris Rock had a banner year, working as a political correspondent for Comedy Central and creating a devastatingly funny stand-up special for HBO. Dysfunction-ridden Richard Lewis overcame career burnout and, with his "Magical Misery Tour," returned to clubs to unleash his best shows ever.
9. @#$%^&*. With all the talk of V-chips, ratings systems and corporate censorship, stand-up Robert Schimmel took it upon himself to celebrate the joys of talking dirty on an exceptionally funny live album, "Robert Schimmel Comes Clean."
10. GONE TO POT. Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" was still the funniest thing in the funny pages--and still has some real bite. The "Doonesbury" gang's take on Proposition 215 had California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren firing off public denunciations of the strip, though he stopped short of challenging Zonker to a debate on the issue.