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What's So Funny, America?

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RODNEY DANGERFIELD calls it an attitude. Bob Hope fans say it's timing.

Freud - typically - felt it was the kick that comes from briefly breaking your own mental rules.

In any case, it's humor, and it's on a roll in America. Publicly and privately, people are laughing harder, in more places - and sometimes paying for the privilege - than ever before.

The heyday of humor is seen in the virtual explosion of full-time comedy clubs around the nation - from 15 to some 300 in the last five years, not to mention more than 1,000 part-time rooms. This has created a job bonanza, of course, for professional comics, whose numbers have leaped from a few hundred to about 5,000, according to a recent estimate by Jerry Diner, president of the Professional Comedians Association.

Comedy is the biggest current draw on network TV, attracting over 25 million viewers weekly, a Nielsen study shows, and handily beating categories like feature films and general drama. Comedy also dominated 1988's top-grossing film list, with six of the year's 10 most popular attractions.

``Comedy is very strong today,'' says Marty Krofft, co-creator of the satirical TV series ``DC Follies.'' His program spoofs celebrities in politics, sports, and show business with a cast of life-sized puppet look-alikes. It might not have succeeded a decade ago, but today the climate is right, Mr. Krofft feels. ``There's so many cartoon characters out there,'' he says, ``that it's a picnic for humor. The more the world is in trouble, the more comedy there will be.''

That's exactly what happened during the Depression, claims comedy star Richard Belzer, author of the book ``How to Be a Standup Comic,'' soon to be released by Random House. ``People are cognizant of the uncertainty in the world,'' he says. ``In the '30s, 80 million people went to the movies every week. Now, people are going to comedy clubs. Some call them the new Yuppie vaudeville. Yuppies go to these clubs in droves to laugh and forget that sometimes they've made their good fortune on the backs of other people.''

The comedy that attracts them to these clubs is missing a vital part, according to comedian Mort Sahl. He says the young stand-ups who fill the comedy stores and TV shows may act anti-establishment, but it's a false front.

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