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The Joke's on Comics Who Don't Change

November 24, 1997|ERNEST CHAMBERS | Ernest Chambers is senior vice president of production at Merv Griffin Entertainment. He was head writer for "The Danny Kaye Show" in the 1960s and also co-created "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and most recently produced the "Who Makes You Laugh?" comedy special

Regarding Patrick Goldstein's article, "Are These Guys Still Funny?" (Calendar, Nov. 17), the answer is, not doing what they're doing.

It is true that comedy is a young person's game. Always has been. While comedians such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny continued to be comedy stars into their 80s, the truth is they had long ceased to really be funny. They became institutions, like pop music stars who bring their devoted fans along with them through the years. For the most part, Neil Diamond's fans are the same ones who bought "Hot August Night." Seeing Sinatra in concert in recent years, I am still hearing the Sinatra who has informed my life since I was a teenager.

I've written for a lot of great comedians--Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Benny, Bill Cosby, the Smothers Brothers, Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith--yes, Andy Griffith. Long before "Matlock" or "The Andy Griffith Show," Andy was hilarious in his comedy classic, "What it was was football." But then Andy became a straight man and then an actor.

With rare exceptions, comedians cannot expect to go on doing the same act forever. We all grow older, and comedians, like athletes, can lose their timing. The punch lines don't land just right; the sketch characters are a little too obvious; the pratfalls seem too premeditated.

In your 20s, you have the insouciant irreverence and insolence of youth. Twenty years ago, Chevy Chase, doing weekend update on "Saturday Night Live," could say, "I'm Chevy Chase--and you're not!," and mean it.

By the time you're 50, life has put you through a few wringers and, as the Righteous Brothers might have said, you lose that laughin' feeling. Steve Martin has become a very serious thinker who would look unseemly today with an arrow through his head. Bill Murray is still trying to "do Bill Murray" in the same way that Benny attempted to play his famous comedy pauses until he was over 80, only the pauses were no longer quite as funny and sometimes seemed interminable. He remembered those pauses got him big laughs; he had just lost something. He had lost his timing.

When you start out in the comedy clubs, a few well-placed obscenities and you've got 'em rolling in the aisles. By the time you're 40, you need a new act, befitting your age and life experiences. In comedy as in life, the old adage, "act your age," applies. Witness Steve Martin in "Father of the Bride."

I remember a benefit at which Richard Pryor preceded Danny Thomas. Pryor tore the place up with his obscenities. Thomas followed and, instead of doing the material that had made him famous, attempted to compete with Pryor in the obscenity department. He wasn't Danny and he wasn't funny. It was just embarrassing.

A comedian can last if he can, like the larva of a butterfly, grow himself a new comedy persona. Not easy to do. But Cosby has done it. George Carlin is still very funny, but not doing the same material he did 20 years ago. Garry Shandling has created a world for himself in the persona of Larry Sanders. Billy Crystal is in a class by himself in the great tradition of the comedy performer.

These guys will go on being funny forever--or at least until their timer breaks.

for ABC.

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