Breaking all the rules

Today's comics are far from traditionalists, and both studios and networks are getting in on the joke.

There's a sequence during the second season of HBO's "Extras" during which struggling actor Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) encounters David Bowie inside a posh nightclub -- only to have the legendary musician erupt into an impromptu ditty ridiculing his decision to star in a "catchphrase comedy." As the patrons gather around the piano, Bowie belts out lyrics like "Little fat man who sold his soul," while Millman silently sits by, just listening.

It's the kind of painfully awkward humor Gervais and writing/directing partner Stephen Merchant perfected on their anti-sitcom BBC series "The Office," and it seems that everywhere -- from the raw reality-show hilarity of the 2006 boxoffice sensation "Borat" to the delightfully askew approach of NBC's own award-winning edition of "Office" -- comedians are taking a page from the German school of schadenfreude when it comes to making audiences laugh. In other words, comedy is getting darker, cleverer and meaner than before.

Nowhere is that more obvious than on television. The four-camera situation comedy replete with a laugh track has gone the way of the proverbial dinosaur, replaced by edgy single-camera sitcoms on network television and even edgier programming on cable. Series such as Comedy Central's "The Sarah Silverman Program" and its politically charged pairing "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," along with old standbys like "South Park," are continuing to go after today's sophisticated audiences with aggressive -- and, in some cases -- transgressive humor.

The phenomenon is hardly confined to the small screen, however. As the industry gears up for the 13th annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., running Wednesday-Sunday, many insiders say that the only real rule with comedy today -- be it in film, television or on the stage -- is that performers now enjoy unprecedented freedom to shatter conventional boundaries and even challenge notions of good taste.

"It's hard to be clean and funny," admits actor David Spade, who is currently co-starring on the CBS midseason comedy "Rules of Engagement" and hosting Comedy Central's "The Showbiz Show." "Some people are very good at it, but especially in clubs, it's not supposed to be PC. It's supposed to push the boundaries. You have to stray from the same seven jokes, and that's not meant for the whole family.

"If you're funny," Spade continues, "you can get away with nearly anything. If you aren't, you can't."

But is it really just that simple? Paul Provenza, who co-executive produced 2005's defiantly profane documentary "The Aristocrats," says yes. "Look at the success of our film, of 'Borat,' of 'South Park,'" he says. "There is a place for clean, of course, but stand-up comedy is the one area where you're not supposed to have to play by the rules. There is no government agency overseeing it and no advertisers to answer to. It really is complete and total freedom. Why would you want to try to sanitize that? It wouldn't serve any purpose other than to water it down needlessly."

Many agree that the Internet has given rise to an edgier and less-restrictive mind-set when it comes to most things comedy. With racy material easily accessible via YouTube and numerous other sites, a new generation of comedians -- the Dane Cooks of the world -- are free to market themselves to America without censorship or really much in the way of oversight.

"I think what the online thing has done is eliminate the geographic barriers to comedy," "Daily Show" contributor Lewis Black says. "It's not just about clubs in New York or Chicago or L.A. anymore. Now, it's all over the place in a second."

Maureen Taran, vp programming for the festival division of Montreal's annual Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, agrees. "It has helped breed a certain anything-goes vibe," she says. "Comedians are establishing brands and creating names for themselves by virtue of being online alone."

Judd Apatow, though, sees things somewhat differently. The man behind 2005's comedy blockbuster "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and Universal's planned June comedic release "Knocked Up" says that the more Orwellian aspects of the Internet -- that anyone can be recorded at any time, and that those recordings can show up on virtually any Web site -- might ultimately have a chilling effect on comedians performing material in clubs.

"I'd hate to think that people are holding back over fear that something they say onstage will wind up being fodder for controversy on the Internet," he says. "I mean, imagine if someone with a cell phone had always been there recording the Rat Pack back in the day. Can you envision what that might have done to Dean (Martin) and Frank (Sinatra), to have every conversation with a gangster or drunken rant uploaded somewhere?"

When it comes to the question of where to draw the line in terms of what comics can do and say, Silverman's name inevitably comes up, given her penchant for jokes involving the Holocaust, AIDS and rape. She responded to an e-mailed question about limits by quipping that she "did once have a line that went, 'Is it molestation if the child makes the first move?'"

Given how off-putting those comments can be to a certain segment of the population, it's hardly surprising that a backlash of sorts against profanity and raunchy material has emerged, giving rise to a splinter comedy movement centered around working clean. Entire agencies -- including one called Clean Comedians -- now specialize in booking only performers who agree to prohibit objectionable words and bodily-function humor in their acts.

"There really is a large audience that now seems to relish artists who do clean material," says Rick Greenstein, a senior partner and senior vp at the Gersh Agency. "That isn't to say that edgy content is dying. It's just that I think a lot of people are reacting against comics who step over the line and go dark and offensive, and those who do risk losing some fans. I think the basic message is that if you're onstage with a microphone in your hand, at the very least you have a responsibility to be professional."

Thomas Lennon, who along with partner Robert Ben Garant wrote Fox's 2006 Ben Stiller megahit "A Night at the Museum" and wrote and executive produced the studio's current release "Reno 911!: Miami," says that when it comes to determining what material is appropriate for a given audience, it's all about common sense.

"You can't say and do the same stuff on television as you can on the big screen, but even we were surprised by what we can get away with," Lennon says. "We would have thought that having a monkey pee on Ben Stiller in 'Night at the Museum' wouldn't make the final cut for a family movie, but it did. I think it's all just about making it work and not seem gratuitous because then you get busted."

Adds Garant: "In comedy, you can have characters who are unheroic and kind of awful people. Like Borat."

Bob Cooper, who formerly headed up original movies at HBO and now runs production company Landscape Entertainment, says: "The only limit you should have in comedy is whether or not it plays as fresh. If it's fresh, it's all right if you offend a few people. It doesn't have to be about mean. It just has to make you laugh, and what's fresh and funny is always changing."

Who knows? The old-style setup/punchline style could even mount a comeback. Particularly when it comes to television, everything that is deemed dead and buried seems to rise from the grave eventually.

"This whole TV game is like playing Whac-a-Mole," Spade says. "If you smack one thing down, another pops up. But there always has been, and always will be, funny stuff to watch. I know it's true now because I watch a lot of things that make me jealous, and that only happens when they're good."

Apatow echoes that notion, saying that rarely has comedy been better or funnier than it is today. "We're in the middle of a really good comedy wave right now," he says.

"I don't know that we've ever had a time where there were this many funny people making movies -- Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Sacha Baron Cohen. And a bunch of supporting players like Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd are now getting their shot, too. It's an exciting time because even as the concept of what is funny changes, the number of truly funny people around us just continues to grow."

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