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Funny Stuff

July 25, 1993|BOB YOUNG | Bob Young is a Los Angeles-based free-lance who writes about video and home technology

There's something funny going on with home video. Comedy in all forms is more pervasive than ever on videocassette and laser disc; well-stocked outlets offer an increasingly eclectic array of stand-up performances, classic TV skits, special made-for-video presentations and offbeat programs that defy easy categorization.

Why the surge in comedy videos? No less an expert than George Carlin once said that comedy, a time-honored tonic, always becomes more popular when times are tough, and video allows people to collect their favorite funny stuff so they can take a dose whenever they need it. Moreover, the genre is perfectly suited for video. Because comedy is a rather intimate art form and rarely requires the scope of theatrical films, it translates especially well onto the boxy confines of a TV screen.

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In fact, most current comedy releases originated on TV, including the recently released BBC production The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, based on the best-selling "Hitchhiker" novels by Douglas Adams. The six-episode series tells the story of cosmic adventurer Arthur Dent, who hooks up with a band of planet-hopping intergalactic vagabonds after Earth is demolished by a race of cranky aliens bent on redeveloping the solar system.

The series is available from CBS/Fox on a single VHS cassette ($20) recorded in the slower Extended Play (EP) speed, and a collector's edition two-tape set ($35) recorded in Standard Play (SP), which comes packaged with the original paperback.

Why are two tapes better than one? Videocassettes that are recorded in the faster SP speed generally offer sharper, higher-quality images than EP cassettes, although they do use up more tape.

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British humor is all over video these days. A four-cassette boxed set of four episodes from the British program Fawlty Towers, starring Monty Python alumnus John Cleese, is selling well (CBS/Fox VHS: $55 a set or $15 a tape).

And Micheal Palin, another former Python member, recently followed up his well-reviewed "Around the World in 80 Days" with Pole to Pole, a four-cassette travelogue of TV shows that details Palin's trek from the North Pole to Antarctica, an often arduous five-month journey laced with low-key, observational humor and encounters with real people both ordinary and downright bizarre.

Courting adventure, Palin rides deadly rapids and visits the old Soviet Union as it begins to teeter on the brink of collapse (A&E: $70 set).

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HBO's Tanner '88--a thoroughly American mock-documentary series that does to presidential politics what "This Is Spinal Tap" did to rock 'n' roll--has the distinction of being recently released on laser disc as part of Voyager's connoisseur Criterion Collection, which meets the highest standards of video and audio quality. This three-volume set, directed by Robert Altman ("The Player") and starring Michael Murphy as a Democratic candidate running in the primaries, skewers spin-doctoring and carefully crafted media images. It even foreshadows the "outsider chic" that dominated the '92 campaign. Adding to the authentic ambience are cameos by Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and other political figures.

Each tape and disc holds two complete episodes (Pacific Arts VHS: $80 set, Criterion LD: $50 each).

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Some of the most memorable moments from "Saturday Night Live" have been repackaged in a new series of videos from Technicolor. The Best of Saturday Night Live: Celebrity Series offers collections of sketches featuring four of the most popular "SNL" hosts: Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks and Chevy Chase--on separate cassettes.

For those who want to sample classic bits from the first five years of the show, The Classic Years Collection is a series of five videos that includes such popular characters as Mr. Bill, John Belushi's samurai warrior and Bill Murray's Nick the Lounge Singer. Two special-edition cassettes featuring previously televised retrospectives round out the line: the 15th Anniversary Special and SNL Goes Commercial, a look at some of the show's best commercial parodies. Each videocassette costs $20, and they range in length from 48 minutes to 102 minutes.

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Maybe hip-hop stand-up is your bag. Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam, the hit HBO showcase featuring comedians with an in-your-face rap attitude, comes to stores in three different packages. Pacific Arts has released the raucous, often raunchy hourlong jam, hosted by Martin Lawrence, on a single VHS videocassette ($15), an audiocassette ($10) and in a combo pack that includes both formats ($17).

"The audiocassette is the portable version for playing in your car," said Pacific Arts vice president Bito Mandato. "I don't think this has ever been done with a comedy video before. The humor is very explicit, so it works as an audio program. It's not exactly 'Monty Python,' you know."

The comedy is raw and brash and sexual. Don't take the language-advisory sticker lightly.

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