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Laughing at ourselves, with help from Bob Newhart and Mark Russell

Two of American television's most sophisticated humorists agree that America needs to laugh at itself during this time of unemployment and inflation. And they are doing something about it.

Bob Newhart of CBS (Monday, 9:30-10 p.m.) and Mark Russell of PBS (Wednesday, 9-9:30 p.m., but check local listings for varying days and times for premieres and repeats) believe that their shows bring something more than mere laughter - that their kind of intelligent humor provides a necessary catharsis for people facing the trials of day-to-day living in a difficult society.

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I talked to both of them the other day.

You can't expect to enjoy Mark Russell on TV if your newspaper reading is limited to the comic strips. His type of humor requires some awareness of what's going on from the viewer.

''My audiences read newspapers, watch PBS. They're thoughtful people. Wealth and geography have nothing to do with it - in every community there is a nucleus of thoughtful, curious people who seem to get a kick out of the political satire which I do.''

Why is he just about the only one on TV doing political satire?

''Well, there certainly isn't any great clamor for it on commercial TV. All we see there are short monologues by Johnny Carson and Bob Hope. That's about all the traffic will bear. On PBS I'm lucky to get that half hour every couple of months, uncensored, live. Compared to commercial TV, it's a small audience.

''But after all, satire has a kind of shadowy guise. It's sort of semihonorable. You are being a little naughty, irreverent. So it needs the feel of small basement cafes, as in the old Berlin, and it shouldn't be flashy, straight out of Las Vegas.

''My show originates from public TV station WNED in Buffalo, N.Y., and we tape at the State University of New York at Buffalo before an audience of students and invited guests.''

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What kind of satire works best?

''The more the polarization on an issue, the better satire seems to work on that subject. People also sometimes forget that satire is not impersonation, like Rich Little's work. The true satirist doesn't get any laughs at all. What he's saying is in its own way deadly serious.

''The best satire concentrates on issues, not personalities. And I never tell jokes.''

Is unemployment a good subject for satire, despite its extremely grim character.

''Yes. But not a good subject for ha-ha jokes. For instance, I might say that in October, when the Reagan administration knew the new unemployment figures were coming out, they decided to divide the unemployed into two groups: the group that Reagan inherited from the previous administration and the group he caused. So there were 11 million in the first group and Al Haig and Richard Allen in the second group.''

What sort of contemporary satire will we be hearing on Mr. Russell's Wednesday night show on PBS?

''Well, I'll be talking about the dense-pack missile system (which suffered a recent political setback in the House of Representatives), which means that the whole free world will be defended by Cheyenne, Wyoming. And there will be a number about a guy who lives on a farm and yearns for his boyhood days in Los Angeles. . . .''

Does Mark Russell feel that people are laughing more these days, despite the bad news all around us?

''Laughing at yourself has always been a marvelous antidote. There has never been a time in the 25 years that I have been doing this that people haven't said 'Boy, we need this more than ever.'

''People said that during the Vietnam war, during Watergate. 'We really need this because inflation is up,' they say, and then when inflation is down, they say, 'We really need this because of the recession.'

''The fact is we always need this.'' Newhart's humor

Mr. Newhart's new show, in which he plays a writer-innkeeper in New England, is proving to be the only new series consistently in the top 20.

''I'm pleased about that,'' Newhart says, ''but we'll really find out how much they like us when 'M*A*S*H' goes off the air in a couple of months and we're on our own without the carry-over from that strong show, which precedes us now.''

Is there a Newhart audience out there that will watch any show he does?

"Maybe an intelligent audience, but not specifically a Newhart audience. Maybe a little starved for their own kind of show, one that demands a bit of intelligence from its viewers. But I would never call it a Newhart audience. If what you are doing isn't any good, no matter how loyal people are, they're not going to watch.''Are we in for an era of more sophisticated comedy on TV?

''I hope so. That's one of the reasons I'm back on the air this season. I thought I sensed a change. When I left the old show, I sensed the opposite. It was the time of 'The Incredible Hulk' and 'Wonder Woman' and shows like that. I thought I'd better not try a seventh year with the old show in that climate. I was tired of watching the networks all try to copy ABC's hit shows.

''When I was off, people would come up to me in the street and they'd say, 'Please, come back, give us something to watch.' That's a very nice feeling when people think of you and your work that way. So, I came back, and I'm doing the same kind of show I've always done. I think there is a resurgence in demand for mature comedy.

Does Newhart attract a brighter audience than most?

''I wouldn't put it that way. In the old show and in this new one, we simply give the audience credit for having some intelligence. We don't hit them over the head with gags. And that's a compliment to them. Anyway, I wouldn't know how to do a pie-in-the-face kind of show. This new show is a radical departure in that it portrays two adult people who are able to solve their own problems . . . without the help of their children. We don't have any in the show.

''I've always found that the funniest things are the true things - all our humor comes out of character rather than gags.

''Not too long ago, on Saturday night it was 'All In The Family,' 'M*A*S*H,' 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' and 'Carol Burnett.' So it really was a golden age, a wonderful time when people were doing wonderfully intelligent humor. There was an audience then. If that audience has left, I am sure it is now coming back.''

How much of the lead character is the real Newhart?

''He's 85 percent me. I always hold about 15 percent back, because I don't want to confuse myself with the character I play. You have to hold back for your own protection as a human being. When I perform, there is the slightest change in my voice because that's him and not me.''

Is Newhart happy being a humorist, as long as he can do the kind of humor he does best?

''Look. When people stop you on the street and thank you for all the good years of laughs, there's nothing nicer''. TV's new 'Powerhouse'

There's a new look in teen education on PBS. Action and adventure combine with education in an unusual new series aimed at young people which premieres this Sunday (PBS, 7-8 p.m. - check local listings) with a one-hour special, then continues with half-hour programs Mondays through Fridays at 6 p.m.

Powerhouse concentrates on the adventures of a multiracial inner-city (Washington, D.C.) 12-to-18-year-old group who help take over an old building and turn it into an after-school youth center. Funded by the US Department of Education, ''Powerhouse'' is the brainchild of Ira Klugerman and Ruth Pollak of the Educational Film Center in Springfield, Va.

It is, in a way, a natural extension of ''Sesame Street,'' picking up the youngsters at the point where ''Sesame Street'' drops them off. ''Powerhouse'' also uses commercial advertising techniques in what it calls ''nonadvertising'' spots to promote general well-being, including health and constructive and positive teen activities and organizations.

The main adult character in the show is called Brenda Gaines, who subtly leads the youngsters in the right direction. She is played by Sandra Bowie, a black teacher-actress from Howard University.

''My character is not an authority figure, she's a friend,'' she told me recently. ''In the show, we force the kids to ask themselves, 'Am I going to grow up and try to make it good for myself and believe in myself?' Those are good questions for a kid to ask.''

Miss Bowie is very enthusiastic about the show. '' 'Powerhouse' kids don't just do the good stuff. They go outside the realm of 'goodie two shoes' and do a lot of adventure-action things that are fun and exciting. And the villains, although they may be doing exciting things, never win in the end. They're not people anybody would like to be.

''An underlying theme in all the shows is: 'Go for it. Don't just sit there; get up and do something.' We're telling them to do something good for themselves and for other people as well.

''I teach young people, and have learned that today's teenagers, especially the black ones, are so fear-ridden that they need to be urged to go out there and try. Go for it, take risks, don't just sit back and watch life on the tube. If you lose, it doesn't mean you are a bad person. It simply means you'll have to try harder . . . and again. 'Powerhouse' shows kids how to compete.

''It teaches them not to be afraid. After all, we are all powerhouses - you've just got to find when and how to use your power.''

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