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Shtick Shift: Stand-Up's Edge No Longer Cuts

Black says, for example, the Republicans are the party of bad ideas. The Democrats are the party of no ideas. "And the only thing dumber than a Republican or a Democrat" -- Black makes his sucking-on-a-lemon face -- "is when these two . . . work together!"

Polite applause. Meaning: You go, Lewis. Couldn't agree more. Tell us another one.

The "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" features, from left, Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, Jeff Foxworthy and Ron White. (Rod Tanaka)

It is not that Black is not funny. Depending on your bent, he is. Rather, it's the type and style of stand-up that seems to have shifted, and that audiences appreciate a kind of humor that feels comfortable, one that does not offend sensibilities, but enforces them.

Black says about the clapping: "I think it's a 'we agree.' It's a form of recognition. Like, I get the joke. I really get the joke." But he understands this is less. "Because applause is fine, but you want them to laugh."

Applause is brain. Laugh is gut.

"When you get applause," says Westenhoefer, "it's because you did a cheerleader line. Maybe you're preaching to the choir. I can go out in front of an audience of gays and liberals and say, I can't believe George Bush is president, and they'll clap, but I'm just stroking them."

Comedy club owner Masada says the trend in stand-up is "the material everybody relates to." Political humor, actually, is not hot on the club circuit. "Current affairs is good, but political satire is fading," Masada says.

"I think you see a lot of safe politics," says B.J. Novak, a stand-up in Los Angeles's alternative comic scene (another subgenre) and a writer and actor on the NBC show "The Office." "It's vaguely confrontational but it won't really offend."

Take the comedic stylings of Leno, gentle and bipartisan. A joke, for example, that makes fun of Bush's accent or John Kerry's stiffness. "But it's not going to enrage the average Bush supporter or the average Kerry supporter," says Novak.

When Black takes meetings in Los Angeles to talk about film or TV projects, he says it's funny that the executives think of his act as "edgy." "I've got a fairly family-friendly audience," Black says. "Families coming with their kids. They say I'm edgy. What? My audience is like Christian comedy night. Except they have more teeth in their heads."

That last bit was a joke, of course. But Black probably didn't mean to offend anybody.

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