Humor Gets the Last Laugh COMEDY'S COMEBACK

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

Humor Gets the Last Laugh COMEDY'S COMEBACK


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


If your little dog can write his name in ketchup, or walk backward and say "www.woof.com," be sure to contact Susan Sheehan right away.

Ms. Sheehan is David Letterman's "stupid pet trick" coordinator and always on the prowl for pets capable of doing oddball tricks on the "Late Show."

According to some humor experts in the United States, such zany fun is part of a spreading wave of comedy, possibly adding up to a golden age of American humor. More laughter is sounding these days, they say, for two main reasons: It is a healthy reaction to the cumulative frustrations of demanding, often stressful daily lives; and the Internet, that rocket purveyor of attitude and information, can now spread the same jokes coast to coast in an instant. The economy may be booming on Wall Street, but frustrated folks on Main Street know personal bankruptcies are at an all-time high; corporations are downsizing; the gap between rich and poor is growing wider; technology in daily life is on overload; and Reeboks for trendy teens can cost $125 a pop. Dogs may bark under such stress, but many humans tell jokes. "We've had more free time and more media to convey humor," says Raymond Lesser, co-editor of Funny Times in Cleveland, a newspaper with a circulation of 50,000. "But if it is a golden age of humor," he says, "maybe it's a golden age of frustration, too." Tens of thousands of jokes are now flowing back and forth on the Internet each day. David Letterman's wildly popular "Top Ten" list format is copied by everyone from academics to Zen Buddhists. Many hospitals use "humor carts" and "laugh lounges" to trigger healing laughter in patients. Bill Maher's witty, unrehearsed jousting with guests on "Politically Incorrect" appears weeknights on ABC. Thirteen of today's top 20 shows on television are situation comedies (many starring stand-up comics); in l984 it was only five. Southwest Airlines builds humor into its corporate culture for greater profits. The venerable Washington Post offers readers humor contests. Recently a clown, Bill Irwin from New York, won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant. And that beloved disfranchised cartoon engineer "Dilbert" appears in 1,400 newspapers and sells books by the millions. In short, humor has become as visible as green hair on Dennis Rodman. "A golden age is exactly what is happening," says Fred Talbott, a professor of management communications at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and a humorist who taught comedy writing to President Bush's speech writers. "It's not just the humor professionals," he says, "but people everywhere are using it - corporate leaders, hospital staffs, elderly caregivers, you name it." Although American humor may be forever subjective and regional, the media - TV, radio, movies, and now the Internet - have provided instant public access to all kinds of humor. Some experts say this wide-ranging sharing of humor reveals nothing new about the nature of humor, but simply releases it from the former constraints of time and geography. Comedy clubs, which faded in popularity as comedy on cable TV increased in the '80s, are popping up again, mainly in big cities and college towns. Many offer "alternative comedy" featuring young unknowns experimenting with storytelling and parodies. "Humor doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be, left to those who use it by profession," says Joel Goodman, the founder and director of the Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "We want to reverse the ratio that has less than 1 percent of people as humor professionals," he says, "and bring the other 99 percent into humor." Since 1977, Mr. Goodman has promoted humor as a practical, daily life resource in seminars, books, and an annual humor conference, first offered in 1986. …

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