Satire Meets Mass-Marketing. TV Ha-Ha Era Begins. Film at 11.

Social ridicule always has had a following. But in the increasingly skeptical '70s, TV programmers have discovered that satire has mass appeal. And the funny thing is -- it doesn't even have to be funny.

The widening readership of the National Lampoon magazine during the '70s demonstrated that -- as did the subsequent success of the Lampoon Diaspora, in which many of its ex-members carried their irreverent world-view to the movies and television. The last half of the decade has seen humor turn topical -- and, more important, topical turn salable -- spurring on the careers of comics like Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and Chevy Chase, and providing relatively huge audiences to troupes like Monty Pythan and Second City.

Not funny enough, you say? When the ratings show that even an increasingly ill-mannered "Saturday Night Live" can draw a 30- to 50-percent audience share, with the proverbial 18-to-34 Good Demographics to boat, who needs funny?

"People who watch this kind of humor -- the kind that comments on the ridiculousness of life in 1979, or that reminds us of how we're currently blowing it -- will sit there and watch the whole thing whether it's funny or not," says Jim Larkin, the New York-based producer of a half-hour "Second City" competitor called "Madhouse Brigade" (aired by Channel 4 here after "Saturday Night Live"). "It's a sort of safety valve. It's not just humor, but it's a confirmation that the world really doesn't make a lot of sense."

Says Clifford Curley, program manager for Washington's Channel 4: "Years ago, the network news was not a half-hour running -- it was 15 minutes long, and I think people were just not as aware of things going on in the world as they are now. A lot of satire then -- I'm talking about maybe 15, 20 years ago -- was limited to coffee house-type audiences.

"I think you'll be seeing now more comedy at Americans' situations than ever before. It's just that there are so many more people now who -- well . . . know the punchline, and are affected by it."