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Comedians

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It is one of the little-recognized laws of entertainment that the importance of any innovation is directly proportional to the amount of stand-up comedy it frees for public consumption. The advent of the LP allowed millions of people to enjoy the middlebrow shtick of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner; VCRs brought the raunchy rantings of Eddie Murphy and Andrew ”Dice” Clay safely into America’s living rooms; and cable TV cleared the way for oh-so-serious channels like Lifetime and A&E to throw obscure comics up against a red-brick wall to kill an hour or two. Now, inevitably, we have the first comprehensive CD-ROM devoted to this peculiarly American art form, Comedians (Magnet Interactive Studios, for PC and Mac, $44.98).

Based on the acclaimed 1991 book of pictures and text by photojournalist Arthur Grace, Comedians provides a multimedia gloss on the life of the stand-up comic — not your everyday stand-up comic, the kind of shlub who gets heckled at Uncle Giggles — but 13 heavy hitters ranging from Steve Martin to Joan Rivers to Alan King. As you navigate your way through a virtual comedy club, pointing to and clicking on various objects, you’re treated to stunning black-and-white photos of the comics (lifted straight from the book, the full text of which is also available), sound bites from interviews, printed quotes, and 30-second to two-minute snatches of live performances in a small video window (about three or four per performer). Steven Wright: ”I can levitate birds, but nobody cares.” Robert Klein (as a flight attendant): ”Will the Jew who ordered the kosher meal please make himself known?” Bob Hope: ”The Supreme Court ruled that there can be no more praying in school. From now on, kids have to study to get good grades.” Ba-da-boom.

Comedians is so cleverly designed that action-game programmers would do well to study it. Most of the objects strewn about the club — a fax machine in the manager’s office, a microphone hanging over a wooden stool, pictures on the walls — are vehicles for the delivery of stand-up material. In the dressing room, for example, you slip a virtual videocassette into a virtual VCR and view a clip of your favorite comic. Click on the condom dispenser in the bathroom, and you get a series of routines about birth control; move over to the nearby urinal, and you get a…flushed urinal (and believe me, you don’t know the meaning of the word multimedia until you see your hard-disk light flashing as this happens).

Alas, if only design were all. Because Comedians concerns itself with seasoned pros rather than those shlubs, there are few real comedic insights to be gleaned here — when Grace elicits from Wright what it’s like to face a packed audience, it’s akin to a sportscaster asking Cal Ripken Jr. how it feels to step up to the plate for the 10,000th time. Also, many of the disc’s subjects have long since transcended the stand-up genre — though I’m sure that Robin Williams still occasionally hits the clubs, no one rooted in the ’90s would think to describe him as a stand-up.

Which brings us back to those video snippets: Unfortunately, they’re about as fresh as reruns of Soap. Jackie Mason on Dick Nixon! Richard Lewis on Dr. Ruth! Whoopi Goldberg on Baby Jessica! (Admittedly, this last bit is funny, but what would Jessica say?) Ultimately, the comic who really shines is Sam Kinison, whose hilarious riff on the Last Supper will have devout Christians rushing to disconnect their sound cards. With his trademarked bellow and menacing bulk, Kinison blows his colleagues right off the screen; it’s a shame his death isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text.

In the end, it’s only fitting to judge this disc by the same criteria that would apply to a stand-up comic. So let’s put it this way: Comedians‘ timing is perfect; its delivery is sharp; it’s just that the material is a bit stale. B