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THE DEVOLUTION OF HUMOR : More People Than Ever Are Manufacturing Comedy. so Why Aren't We Laughing?

January 27, 1991|EDWARD A. GARGAN | Edward A. Gargan writes from New York. He does not own a television.

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.

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