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LECTURES DR. JONATHAN MILLER : Practical Joker : The multitalented author and director looks at humor from an analytical perspective.

February 28, 1991|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How exactly are jokes like rented cars that we take out for a spin and return slightly nicked? And, what is it that we are supposed to "see" when we witness a theatrical spectacle?

Dr. Jonathan Miller--mercurial British physician, director, actor, writer, satirist, TV host, researcher, raconteur and basic rumpled Renaissance guy--will address these questions and others in two lectures Monday at Cal Lutheran University. The lectures are sponsored by the Philosophy Department through the Harold Stoner Clark Endowment Lecture Series.

Noticeably tall, with the profile and close-cropped curls of a Roman patrician, Miller is as interesting to watch as he is to hear. When seated, he tends to coil his body and hug his shoulders as though imitating the mating ritual of some exotic species of bird. During animated conversation, his ectomorphic limbs seem to keep time with his feverish mind, and his hands dance around his face with each new idea.

Given his propensity for sharing his unique, freewheeling thoughts on comedy, humor and the arts, Miller's morning lecture, "Humor and Comedy," promises to be an informal chat covering everything from Bob Hope to Greek tragedy. One minute he quotes Freud or Darwin, and in the next he analyzes joke-telling and its associated social conventions.

"It's very hard to dissect humor," Miller said during a recent interview, "but there are certain ingredients of it which have a powerful cognitive function. A pun is simply taking an implicit knowledge that a word's got two meanings. You suddenly put the weight on the unexpected meaning. Through this type of linguistic humor," he said, "we refresh our knowledge of the world."

A more serious and academic Miller will emerge during the afternoon lecture titled, "The Afterlife of Plays," based upon his most recent book, "Subsequent Performances." Miller will talk about a director's rights and responsibilities in presenting a classic work when time has "begun to impose awkward problems of re-creation and interpretation."

As Miller explained, when a classic work has "outlasted its natural life, you always have to reconsider it. If you simply go with precedence, then all you're doing is reproducing a previous production. And there's no point in doing that."

From the start, Miller's flamboyant career has been characterized by his leaps from the sublime to the ridiculous and from science to art. Born in London in 1934, Miller attended St. John's College in Cambridge, where he performed with the famous Footlights Society. He received his doctorate in medicine in 1959 from University College, London.

He claims to have been "just an amateur comedian" at University College, insisting that his career change was an "accident."

The accident in question was "Beyond the Fringe," a satirical revue he co-authored and in which he appeared in London and New York from 1961-1964. Besides changing his life, it launched the careers of three other men from Oxbridge--Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett.

"I did 'Beyond the Fringe,' and it was rather more successful than I thought it was going to be," he said with characteristic understatement.

His extensive stage and television credits list many operas and plays, including the highly acclaimed "Merchant of Venice" with Sir Laurence Olivier, and other Shakespeare productions for the National Theater. He has produced 12 plays in the British Broadcasting Co.'s Shakespeare series and directed six of them.

Miller was nominated for a Tony for direction in 1986 for his controversial Broadway production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which starred Jack Lemmon. On Monday, Miller made his New York Metropolitan Opera directing debut with its current production of Leos Janacek's "Katya Kabanova."

* WHERE AND WHEN

Miller will present "Humor and Comedy" at 10 a.m. and "The Afterlife of Plays" at 8 p.m. on Monday in the Samuelson Chapel on the campus of Cal Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. There is no admission charge and reservations are not required. For further information call (805) 495-4470 or (805) 493-3122.

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