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January 27, 1980 - Image 14

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The Michigan Daily, 1980-01-27
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The Michigan Daily-Sunday

Page 4-Sunday, January 27, 1980-The Michigan Daily

The New Comedy may still be unny,
but lately we're forgetting to laugh

Owen Gleiberman
C HEVY CHASE once dubbed Satur-
day Night Live "the Off-Broadway
of television," a bit of modest
ballyhooing that pretty well summed up
the show's astonishing appeal. From
the beginning, everyone (or, at least,
kids) knew it was funny, but what gave
Saturday Night that extra zing was that
it came out of nowhere and spit on the
rules of mainstream TV entertainment.
The show's main set resembled nothing
so much as a grimy New York back
alley. And the comedy, at its best, was a
deliciously naughty thrill. We'd seen
plenty of tasteless, wildly off-the-wall
humor before, but never on television.
Saturday Night Live seemed to
recreate the idea of a counterculture,

even if it was harmless next to the coun-
terculture of the sixties, and even if its
jovial accessibility meant that nearly
every high school and college kid in the
country belonged to it.
That other, forgotten counter-
culture-the serious one-came from
an opposition to war, so it preached
love. Ours came from an opposition to
work, and so if preached play-silly,
wasteful, and, above all, funny. Funny
was suddenly an end in itself, magically
split off from everything else. Steve
Martin was given commercial
canonization for turning mind-
less into a sort of comic religion.
Andy Kaufman was sometimes so fun-
ny you forgot to laugh, but his humor's
utter lack of redeeming social value (it
had less than Martin's, if that was
possible) was cause enough for accep-
tance. Even Woody Allen, whose string
of brilliant comedies had already made

him the popular comedian of the
- decade, rode' the wave of the mid-
seventies comedy renaissance to new
heights. Annie Hall was,among other
things, a "good film," but there was the
underlying message that Alvy Singer,
far from another pretty face, got the girl
because he was funny. He had a slew of
hang-ups and a streak of narcissism a
mile wide, but with that wry comic
charisma, he couldn't miss.
These days, though, funny doesn't
seem quite as important (or nearly as
much fun) as it did back then. It used to
be that John Belushi, Gilda Radner,
Steve Martin and the rest were our Sid
Caeser, Carl Reiner, and Imogene
Coca-SNL was our Show of Shows. As
the show drags its way along its fifth
season, the Not Ready For Prime Time
Players are beginning to look as listless
as the pop-eyed zombies on Barney
Miller and One Day At a Time. (Is it
Woody Allen's self-deprecating com-
ment on how we've put too much faith
in humor that the TV show his charac-
ter in Manhattan quits out of highbrow
disgust appears to be modeled off of
Saturday Night Live?) It's taken
a while, and it didn't happen in quite the
way they might have expected, but the
stars of our midnight comedy oasis are
finally ready for prime time. The show
even has its own spot at the safe,
domestic hour of 10 p.m.-The Best of
Saturday Night Live now airs weekly on
Wednesdays, just after Gary "squeeze
my cheeks" Coleman's Different
Strokes-during which one can catch
unseen episodes and die-hard addicts
can relive some of the livelier mome4-

at 1:00 a.m., might even do well to ex-
change titles. Something like SN Dead's
The Valley of Gwange, a post-Roger
Corman sci-fi schlocker I caught a few
weeks ago, in which ya-hoo cowboys
battled a jerkily animated tyran-
nosaurus rex with their lassos; was
livelier and more back-breakingly fun-
ny than just about anything I've seen on
SNL this season.
Is the departure of Belushi and

groping his way through even more bit-
part straight-men than before, with his
druggy, impro-troupe amateurishness.
(Although, to be fair, the guy can sing
like a bird, and as Michael O'Donoghue
once pointed out, nobody looks funnier
in a dress.) With the exception of Bill*
Murray, Aykroyd and Belushi were the
most wildly creative comedians on the
show. Listening to D.A. reeling off ad-
jectivesin one of those order-before-


y - 1

suppose cynical ex-sixties
ealists would say thdt a coun-
rculture built around ome-
ing as silly and amorphous
the Joke was doomed to
ath by overkill. So perhaps
e disintegration of New
omedy was foregone, and
major disappointment.'

would have anyone who's logged hours
in front of the tube in a stupor of
The problem is, Saturday Night Live,
Steve Martin, and even the Woodman
(at least, as a comedian) just don't
matter anymore. Did they ever? I think
so. Before, they represented a shared
youth culture that can only be likened to'
the kind-of communalism that springs
up around rock and roll performers and
maybe a film or two. (Rocky Horror,
not so incidentally, has rock and
comedy.) They were all silly and min-
dless and frivolous, especially com-
pared to the heroes from the decade
before. (For all its pro-life vivacity,
the sixties could probably' have used a
few more laughs.) But it was precisely
their frowzy vulgarity and amorality
that made the comedy so liberating.
There's been a sour streak of moralism
running down the center of Woody
Allen's last few films, but the essential
counterpoint of an Allen joke-that
distinctive juxtaposition of the normal
and commonplace with the utterly ab-
surd-runs deeper and rings truer than
the didactic, decay-of-Contemporary-
Culture Allen glimpsed in Manhattan.
And it's that amoral comic instinct we
go to his movies for.
I suppose it's refreshing that none of
the major seventies comedians have
really gone the exploitation route, like
that monthly masturbatory journal the
National Lampoon. It's just that their
comic styles have ceased growing, and
they've lost touch with the sense of
revolutionary absurdity that made
their comedy an implicit assault on the

Not comedy's


but something s future
A NDY KAUFMAN PROUDLY exclaims how "I never told a joke in
my life," but when he's onstage that's the least of the forces work-
ing against him. Here's somebody who absolutely begs to be loathed,
who reads The Great Gatsby-the whole thing-to his paying audience
. and offers it as his complete performance, who has become such a figure
of national hate after his Saturday Night Live put-down of women that
to talk about him in any number of circles has become a dangerous thing.
That he's the most gifted funny-
man around today hardly means
shit. Nor does the fact that he's one
of our greatest performance artists,
right up there were Joseph Beuys
and Abbie Hoffman. Maybe what
does matter, though, is that Andy
Kaufman is probably the first totally
non-person the popular arts have
ever known. You dig beneath what
Andy's making up onstage and you
find a black hole snickering at you.
Popstars from the Beatles to Andy
the painter have been obsessed with
working out a persona that is both ubiquitous and blank, fumbling over
hurdles to keep up a running commentary with their audience on the way
society slobbers up snippets of personality from everyone and makes us
all will-o-the-wisps comprised of visceral traces of character. Kaufman
onstage is Elvis Presley; he is this hopelessly cretinous ethnic fumbling
over every syllable; he's a bloodsucking nightclub performer who dumps
water and obscenities on his audience; he's Uncle Andy, taking the crowd
at his summer Carnegie Hall show out for milk and cookies afterwards,
and meeting them the next morning for a ride on the Staten Island ferry.
And although you could never understand if you haven't seen him, one
thing is important to stress: THIS IS ALL HE IS. There is no person
named "Andy," no comic who unwinds for Johnny on the Tonight Show
and tells behind-the-scenes stories of all his latest spoofs.
More? He works part-time anonymously in a Los Angeles diner as a
busboy and has been slogging through 6 show which does not deserve
him, Taxi, as a bit character. He once-achieved the formerly impossible
feat of making Tom Snyder seem funny when the two conspired to begin a
Tomorrow show interview with a fascinatingly interminable discussion of
the weather.
It comes down to two things. First, there are those eyes, beacons of
coldness that out-terrorize David Byrne's, and make Warhol's icy set of
clam cakes seem as if nothing. And if that doesn't help pin down the ex-
perience of Andy Kaufman, then imaginie a person coming on a nationally-
broadcast variety show and reading from The Great Gatsby .for ten
minutes or so. If that makes you laugh for reasons you could never ex-
plain, then you are as in on the secret of Andy Kaufman's genius as
anyone. If you think that is boring, or dull, then you are as in on the secret
of Andy Kaufman's genius as anyone. -RJ Smith

Aykroyd to blame for the show's
moribund hijinks? In part. It's cer-
tainly a bother (and, on occasion, a little
embarrassing) to see Garrett Morris

midnight-tonight offers (faster, in
fact, than you ever believed a human
being could speak) was to witness a
crazy celebration of junk culture that

Of course, it's hard to guffaw or even
chuckle with the same slap-happy spon-
taneity we did just a year or two ago.
The Wild and Crazy Guys used to be a
scream; now, they're a national
monument, part of the bedrock of pop
cultural history, and sitting through one
of their sketches is a little like being
dragged to Mount Rushmore on the
family vacation: It becomes an
obligation to laugh, to convince yourself
you're having a good time, and
wouldn't be doing just as well to haul off
to the library for a bout with Kant's
Critique of Pure Reason. Gilda Radner
isn't so'much a comic actress these
days as she is a grinning, apple-
cheeked dress-up doll, with matching
outfits and accents. Friends of mine
have stared at the tube in blunted
misery, dumbranded at the relentless
Roseanne Roseannadanna cult. "She
does the same shtick week after week,"
they complain bitterly. But of course'
she does. That's precisely the point of
Roseanne, and of the Samurai and the
Coneheads and Baba Wawa and that
play-dough castrati, Mr. Bill: To make
audiences laugh at the simple
recognition of humor. It's comedy like
the assertion, week after week, that
Barbara Walters is a cotton-mouthed
dodo-rather than the small satirical
revelation of it, which is what we
laughed at the first and, perhaps, the
second time-that's become the back-
bone of Saturday Night Live. More im-
portant than the joke itself is the fact
that we're in on it. Saturday Night Live
and Saturday Night ' Dead, the late-
night horror movie feature that follows

Real World. Of course, it's hard to even
imagine a media darling like Steve
Martin as any sort of revolutionary
figure these days. Next to the modest
comic torpedo of Belushi's "But
nooo! ," Martin's "Excuuuuse me!"
was turned into an atomic bomb,
saturating the country in sickeningly
zany fallout. Martin's movie, The Jerk,
is not only laugh-less, but a disturbingly
provincial pastiche of racist and sexist
stereotypes (particularly the ballsy-
butch girlfriend, who could use a life
sentence in finishing school).
Yet there was a time, maybe for only
-,a few months, when Martin's loopy
wise-guy shenanigans made him some
sort of-yes-hero. He certainly took
comedy a pratfall or two forward by
eliminating jokes (try to find a pun-
chline in "Happy Feet"). More than
that, Martin dared to be an utter,
shameless asshole. If anything, his only
natural enemies were the women who
frequented singles bars and suddenly
had to contend with all those wild and.
crazy guys on the make.
Martin's flaw was that he never
really developed as a comedian, though
in a way he's hardly to blame; Is it
really a performer's fault if his best bits
have been so bandied about that when
he does them on his first tour, they
sound about as fresh as "Take my
wife-please"? Mass popularity can
squeeze out all the creative juices. It's
probably a blessing that Lenny Bruce
never had to contend with an audience
of 40 million adoring youths; if he had,
some of his best routines might have
been reduced to banal catch-phrases fit
for fanzine consumption.
Saturday Night Live faced a similar
dilemma once its huge, extremely un-
cultish audience was established. It
Owen Gleiberman is a frequent
contributor to the Sunday Maga-

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