I have a bone to pick and it's not funny

EVERY FEW MONTHS I forget why most stand-up comedy turns me off. Then a friend has a birthday, or a comic I like offers free passes to his fans via an e-mail list, and I end up kicking myself through a night of overpriced drinks and not-so-funny comics.

You'd hope that a stand-up showcase, wherein eight or 10 comics perform for 10 minutes each, would make for a tasting menu, a "best of" anthology that entertains and provides introductions to unknown delicacies.

If the arrangement can't be that sophisticated, then it should at least be a classic dinner, placing the varied attractions in a sequence as befits their separate functions. The first courses awaken the senses, the entrees engage them and the desserts delight them. The master of ceremonies could perform as sherbet or drinks between courses to cleanse the palate.

But the identical-sounding comedians who take up half of these showcases give the audience serving after serving of greasy fries, with a bite of meat or chocolate in between. Refreshing fruit and delightful dessert come few and far between, and if you're looking for something more complex, like lasagna, you'd better skip the 10-minute routines and opt for the alternative scene or solo shows.

Sure, you and I may have different senses of humor. I acknowledge the subjectivity of the good. I can say that some things are not funny or kind of funny or really funny, and if you have a college education you will probably agree with me on the Not Funny. We can point out criticisms a lot more easily than we can articulate praise — which makes the rest of this column easier.

Mentioning profanity, drugs and sex in a comedy routine is not enough. Straitlaced people loosened by booze will find it risque when one comedian mimics a stoner or uses salty language. But the salt on a hundred french fries in a row loses its savor.

The mediocre comedian's laziness extends from default raunchiness to vocabulary. Everyone can insult men and throw around misogynist jokes and pejoratives. And everyone can make fun of the disabled and the non-heterosexual and the religious. And everyone can make fun of whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and other ethnicities. (South Asian convenience store personnel. What a riot. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.)

Knock it off. The lazy comic habit that peeves me the most: looking at notes. If you fiddle with the water bottle or beer on your stool without drinking, then we know that you are looking at your notes. Do you know how much we paid to be here? We prepare to laugh by boozing; please prepare to make us laugh by memorizing! Or at least be a little smoother about your cheating.

Some lazy comics never update their material. About half of all comics, usually white guys, make stale jokes about the same pop-culture touchstones. They poke fun at "that new fake fat" Olestra, which appeared on the market nine years ago. They weakly jape at Ricky Martin, midgets and the supposed affectations of homosexual men. Ever hear of the tragedy of the commons? You've all overworked this turf and now it yields no harvest.

Observational humor can work and sometimes work very well. But you have to find something no one else has remarked on or you have to give us a unique insight into its absurdity.

I've seen Johnny Steele do a hilarious bit about the popularity of Celtic music, and Mitch Hedburg had off-the-wall anecdotes about McDonald's ads. Just reach. Like writers say: show, don't tell. Lots of us see that preachers and magicians act in similar ways. Will Franken makes it funny by acting it out.

The mediocre stand-up comic explicitly states, "Did you ever notice?" The good comedian overcomes laziness to find the absurd heart of the keen observation. The more absurd, the better. Why is absurd better? Because it is less predictable.

Two penguins are floating on an ice floe. One says to the other, "Hey, it looks like you're wearing a tuxedo." The other says, "How do you know I'm not?" Garrison Keillor likes to tell that one.

When a comic works harder for a joke, reaching beyond obvious raunch or stereotypes, it cuts deeper. A really cutting joke disorients us, making the audience rethink its assumptions and consider the world in a fresh way. Good comedy, thus, makes us better people.

Sumana Harihareswara's column runs on Thursdays. You can e-mail her at sumana@crummy.com.