TV Looks at Gags as Social History

Article excerpt

`DID you ever notice how the homeless are looking more and more like us...?"

That's not a line you would have heard from comics a few decades ago. It seems - only seems - to make light of a touchy social and political issue. Whoopi Goldberg says this in one of her stand-up routines. It got a laugh but also brought a shock of recognition. She was talking about poverty, self-image, and an all-too-familiar sight on city streets.

What has happened to comedy over four decades - especially stand-up comedy in clubs and at "concerts" - to make such stinging remarks a staple of this brand of entertainment is the subject of "but ... seriously." Premiering Saturday on Showtime at 9:40 p.m., this revealing documentary traces a change so complete that without this blueprint it would be hard to realize that jokes weren't always told this way.

During the 1950s, as the show explains, stand-up comedy turned its attention from lightweight material ("Here's my impression of Burt Lancaster at a job interview") and began confronting "the important social and political issues of their day" - issues like war, drugs, abortion, sex, and of course, politics.

A few years ago, Mort Sahl told me emphatically that many comics were no longer doing this - that they were back to mother-in-law jokes - so some recidivism may have taken place. But in the long view, the shift to serious topics is evident, and not the least of TV's duties is to explain how we arrived at attitudes we now take for granted.

That function can only be performed by a real documentary - not a fact-based drama or a reality news magazine, but the reflective, full-length treatment of a subject whose feel and meaning you couldn't get in the packaged treatments so many newscasts now offer.

If the business of comedy is serious, as the cliche goes, then a look back at this brand of comedy is truly serious, often dealing with painful problems. Nowhere else are these problems churned, dissected, and crazily refracted the way they are in today's stand-up acts. …