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Comedy Central's Idea of Comedy

Last month the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.hosted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award recipient was comedic genius Jonathan Winters, and a bevy of entertainers was on hand to pay him tribute, a tribute that was taped for national broadcast in January on Comedy Central.

There were a number of good presentations, but the show-stopper came in the middle of the program when the ageless Sid Caesar, with actor/comedian/author/composer Steve Allen serving as his straight man, performed his famed foreign language double-talk routine, one he's been doing for a half-century. Perhaps it was so good because Caesar and Allen are consummate professionals. But I suspect it was more than that. I suspect they put on a masterful performance because they were honoring Jonathan Winters - their peer, a lifelong friend, the master himself.

Whatever the reason, the skit brought down the house. It was sweet, innocent, creative, ingenious comedy at its finest.

If that was classic comedy, what followed that skit is a classic example of what has happened to comedy. Next in line to pay his respects was Robert Wuhl. Now I'm not sure why this fellow was on the program at all. Certainly he's not in the same league as these giants. (Do you even know who he is?)

And it showed. His was a rambling presentation that strained the patience of an audience politely forcing out laughter over (mostly) unfunny lines. Wuhl's monologue was headed somewhere, though, and finally came the punch line, his masterstroke. Apropos of something genuinely forgettable, suddenly he yelled out to the audience and into the TV monitors, "F___ MARK TWAIN!!"

Why on earth did this man feel the need to scream out an obscenity? It was nothing more than a most sophomoric yuk-yuk, gratuitous toilet language meant only to shock by an man who doesn't know how to be funny. In fact, there were a few more vulgarities and obscenities uttered by him (and others), but this one was particularly blatant, deliberately offensive.

Two days later I learned I was not alone in my disappointment over Wuhl's remark. I also learned just how committed to offending children some in the industry really are.

Mr. Allen, it turns out, was highly upset when he heard this language used. Allen wrote the show's producer, John Schreiber, and reminded him that prior to accepting the invitation to perform, he had asked for and received assurances that no obscenities would be tolerated. "I will pay you the compliment of assuming you had already planned - about three seconds after hearing [the obscenity] - to delete it from the tape," Allen suggested graciously before emphasizing, "And of course I do not mean just bleeping out the sound while letting America's children clearly see what the offensive expletive was."

Allen was unequivocal in his position: "If by any chance I had misinterpreted the evidence of your own gentility and you do plan to include [it] in your show, I'm writing to request that you delete the entirety of my own participation in it."

Consider Comedy Central's alternatives. Edit out the obscenities and improve a fine production or retain the offensive language and decimate the program. In losing Allen it would lose one of its headliners. Allen's monologue (very warm and funny it was, too) would have to be deleted. Most poignantly, it meant that the pinnacle of the event - the duet with Sid Caesar - would have to go as well.

You could draft Schreiber's answer in a nanosecond: "Dear Steve: The obscenities were unfortunate. Don't worry, we've edited them out. Let's do lunch. John."

Wrong. Allen explains what happened next: "Schreiber phoned to report that, although he hated to have to share the news with me, the management of Comedy Central wants very much to include the offensive language in its production, plans to delete absolutely none of it - except for reasons of time - and is - to speak the plain truth - perfectly prepared to lose my own portion of the program, which went very well."

Allen was stunned. Ultimately he would reconsider and allow the network to air the duet with Caesar out of respect for his partner, yet when the show airs in January, his monologue will be out, and the obscenities in.

"There is a moral lesson to be gained from this instance," Allen writes me. "An important power of the modern comedy industry has made a conscious decision here, and it is, of course, the one that puts the lie to at least some industry defenses when there are criticisms - at present voiced by millions of Americans - about the degree to which television's fare has become sordid, sleazy and harmful to the psychological well-being of children."