SAN DIEGO — Comedian Argus Hamilton said his highest compliment came three years ago when Robin Williams introduced him at the Hollywood Comedy Store as "the Will Rogers of the Baby Boom."
"Will Rogers is my idol," said Hamilton, 35. "And emulating him is the smartest thing I've ever done."
Like the late political humorist of the Great Depression years and afterward, Hamilton is a down-home type whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were Methodist ministers in his native Oklahoma.
And like Rogers, Hamilton spikes his satirical comments on the day's top news stories with an even mix of homespun candor, working-class cynicism and aw-shucks naivete.
"I read the newspaper and watch the evening news, and then I stand on stage every night and make smart little remarks to help people overcome their fear of the news," Hamilton said.
"I let Dan Rather and the Los Angeles Times be my straight men, and then I answer them back. And before I know it, I have a joke. There's a segment of society that needs a little sugar with their news and, essentially, that's what I'm giving them."
Since turning professional in 1976, Hamilton has used his razor tongue, wit and penchant for topical humor to become one of the most successful stand-up comedians in the country.
He has appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show 15 times, been a guest on all six of Richard Pryor's television specials, and starred in such other
network TV programs as "Make Me Laugh" and "The Yuppie Show."
He is the host comedian at the Hollywood Comedy Store and a regular on the Lake Tahoe and Reno lounge circuit.
And for more than eight years, Hamilton has ingratiated himself to local audiences through his frequent appearances at the La Jolla Comedy Store, where he's headlining Wednesdays through Saturdays until March 28.
During one recent hourlong show there, Hamilton repeatedly demonstrated that in the world of political humor, nothing, and no one, is sacred.
Commenting on President Reagan's medical problems, Hamilton said, "It seems like every time Reagan makes a mistake, something goes wrong with his body. After Lebanon, he developed colon cancer. After Bitberg, he got nose cancer. And when the Iran scam broke, his prostate gave out.
"I'm telling you, our President had better firm up the ship of state, because he's running out of portholes."
On the civil war in Lebanon: "The situation in Beirut has been impossible for three years. Right now, we have Syria negotiating under Islamic law, Israel under Judaic law, Lebanon under Christian law, and America under Murphy's Law."
Corazon Aquino, Hamilton said, "is always smiling because she found out she has the same shoe size as Imelda."
"Political humor involves a little bit of preaching and a whole lot of warmth," Hamilton said. "It's important to bring across the message that we can laugh at ourselves and at the world, and at the same time we can still be the beacon of liberty and truth that our founding fathers intended us to be.
"This country stands for something, and I won't stand to see it serious."
Hamilton's monthlong engagement at the La Jolla Comedy Store has been a comeback of sorts. In November, he checked into the Betty Ford Center for treatment of his "cocaine and Coors" dependencies, he said.
And his 112-day stay at the center ended less than a week before his San Diego engagement began.
"It's a common trap in my profession," Hamilton said. "Normal people just don't stand up on stage and demand love from an audience of total strangers every night.
"Be it drugs, alcohol, food or anything else, all of us are needy in some respect. And with my kind of grandiosity as a preacher's kid, I guess I'm more needy than most.
"Each night after my show, I would drink beer and snort coke until 8 a.m. and then sleep until 6 the following afternoon. Then I would get up and make the same little speech every night.
"As a result, I never had the chance to grow as a comic. But after that treatment, I have a whole new outlook on things. I'm finally in charge of my own life again."