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It's all funny, honey: US comedians

The funny business is a moving target. From Jackie Gleason's pratfalls to Rodney Dangerfield's rapid-fire one-liners, Archie Bunker's ethnic slurs to Dave Chappelle's hip and racially

india Updated: Mar 11, 2006 22:15 IST

The funny business is a moving target. From Jackie Gleason's pratfalls to Rodney Dangerfield's rapid-fire one-liners, Archie Bunker's ethnic slurs to Dave Chappelle's hip and racially charged delivery, comedy is constantly evolving.

Yet there are eternal truths when it comes to tickling the funny bone, according to writers, directors and performers at the 12th Annual US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen this week. Actor Robert Wuhl, performing here in a one-man show, said comedy is generational but funny is funny.

"It can be anything from a really good joke to a pratfall. I see it as being part of that comedy and tragedy mask. Out of that comes the human drama," he said.

For James Burrows, whose writing, producing and directing credits include The Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Cheers and Frasier, there's always room for a witty show. Currently at work on the final episodes of Will and Grace, Burrows said the similarities of the genre through the ages include "a core humanity, which has to do with the frailty of characters."

"Funny is and will always be," said Burrows, the veteran sitcom writer, producer and director who will be honoured Saturday with the festival's career tribute. Still, he said the big difference between his sitcoms of the '70s and those today is the loss of innocence. "(Mary Tyler Moore) didn't push the envelope as much. In the world now where we have cable, there isn't a big enough envelope," Burrows said.

Bob Crestani, the festival's chief executive, said opportunities abound for the comedic form in part because of new media, including cable, video on demand and the Internet.

"There are more outlets for talent to go to be exposed and do their shtick or whatever," Crestani said. "Independent comedies are becoming a much stronger business."

Kevin Haasarud, an employee of the cable network HBO who programmed films for this festival, said comedy seems to fall in and out of favor. He said the pendulum seems to have swung back to comedy, and he pointed to the surprise success last year of both Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Haasarud said that at this year's festival there is a huge representation from movie studios seeking new talent and programming.

"It's unusual that everyone would show," he said. "It's a good time to be making comedies."

The last pure comedy to win an Oscar for Best Picture was Annie Hall in 1977. Before that was the Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert screwball comedy It Happened One Night, in 1934. Burrows agreed that comedy is cyclical.

"During the early '80s, sitcoms were dead. But then we had Cosby and Cheers, which resuscitated that medium," he said. "Why there aren't more popular sitcoms today has to do with a pair of factors, the splinter effect of cable programming and the lack of experience of some young writers who are thrown into the job before they are ready.

"Those being promoted to head writers haven't had the chance to learn the form," he said.

Stand-up comedy, meanwhile, is highly influenced by popular culture and politics. Immediately following the invasion of Iraq stand-up tended to be more acerbic, profane and political.

The tone among comics at this festival is softer, self-deprecating and a little more personal. To wit: "You know you're fat when you use a piece of a bread as a napkin," said Boston-based funnyman Robert Kelly.

Commenting on his computer-nerd appearance, bespectacled comedian Lenny Marcus maintained he was not a geek despite the fact that "I look like if Bill Gates and Jerry Lewis had kids." And Canadian Stewart Francis quipped: "I read that 10 out of two people are dyslexic."

Two sold-out stage performances of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, performed live this week at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House, showed there's still a market for kindler, gentler humour. There's also a retro feel that is also emerging in some films. Haasarud referred to Funny Money, a new movie starring Chevy Chase as having "a very throwback feel."

"It almost feels Pink Panther-esque.' There's that high farce tone throughout," he said.

In contrast, Annabelle Gurwitch is enjoying success with her live show Fired and the film of the same name that offers a frank and funny look at job loss and downsizing. It was inspired by her unhappy firing from a Woody Allen film.

And in a world fraught with war, bird flu and other serious issues, comedy is once again cool.

"Entertainment is all about escapism," Burrows said. Added Crestani: "Look at the history of comedy, going back into the '30s and '40s, during the Depression, people went to the movies. People need laughs."

First Published: Mar 12, 2006 21:00 IST