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TV Looks at Gags As Social History

`DID you ever notice how the homeless are looking more and more like us...?''

That's not a line you would have heard from comics a few decades ago. It seems - only seems - to make light of a touchy social and political issue. Whoopi Goldberg says this in one of her stand-up routines. It got a laugh but also brought a shock of recognition. She was talking about poverty, self-image, and an all-too-familiar sight on city streets.

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What has happened to comedy over four decades - especially stand-up comedy in clubs and at ``concerts'' - to make such stinging remarks a staple of this brand of entertainment is the subject of ``but ... seriously.'' Premiering Saturday on Showtime at 9:40 p.m., this revealing documentary traces a change so complete that without this blueprint it would be hard to realize that jokes weren't always told this way.

During the 1950s, as the show explains, stand-up comedy turned its attention from lightweight material (``Here's my impression of Burt Lancaster at a job interview'') and began confronting ``the important social and political issues of their day'' - issues like war, drugs, abortion, sex, and of course, politics.

A few years ago, Mort Sahl told me emphatically that many comics were no longer doing this - that they were back to mother-in-law jokes - so some recidivism may have taken place. But in the long view, the shift to serious topics is evident, and not the least of TV's duties is to explain how we arrived at attitudes we now take for granted.

That function can only be performed by a real documentary - not a fact-based drama or a reality news magazine, but the reflective, full-length treatment of a subject whose feel and meaning you couldn't get in the packaged treatments so many newscasts now offer.

If the business of comedy is serious, as the cliche goes, then a look back at this brand of comedy is truly serious, often dealing with painful problems. Nowhere else are these problems churned, dissected, and crazily refracted the way they are in today's stand-up acts.

Cable television has lately taken several looks of this kind at comedy as a measure of society. One example is a penetrating survey aired on HBO a few weeks ago in a program called ``Mo' Funny,'' focusing on black humor as it evolved through American history. A recent Arts & Entertainment show about Milton Berle treated his career, which embodies a basic and ancient approach to comedy. (Berle once told me that people laugh at someone slipping on a banana ``Because it isn't them.'')

The material heard on ``but ... seriously'' is a highly eclectic sampling from four decades of stand-up routines. The show has no narration. It lets viewers make their own connections - and they're obvious - as newsreel footage is juxatposed with comedy excerpts that bite deeply into the public topics just seen. The main drawback for many will be the foul-mouthed material heard in some of the clips. In that respect, TV offers one advantage over seeing the acts in person - viewers can turn off the sound. But even four-letter words may be integral to the social history under examination, which sometimes involves street talk.

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The touchiest issues become grist for the comedy mills: We see cities in flames and riots raging, then hear Richard Pryor speaking of the time he was a black kid living in a Jewish tenement. When anti-black, anti-Semitic bigots saw him, they'd say, ``Get him! He's all of them!'' JFK arrives in Vienna to meet with Khrushchev. Cut to George Carlin doing gags about the superpowers' hotline that has just been installed.

The tide of public affairs moves on in news footage - Vietnam, Watergate, Irangate, the Persian Gulf war - and in turn is dealt with by the comedic mind.

By then you realize that this form of expression is probably what Hamlet meant when he said, about the players he'd invited to perform at the Danish court, ``they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.... [Y]ou were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.''

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