Although often regarded as a frustrated poet or as a failed Bob Dylan, Lou Reed (before he led the Velvet Underground through three years of Sadomasochistic white heat) began his rock 'n' roll career as a humorist.

Despite his dark cynicism, Reed has been rock's best comedian since 1965. Whether he was perpetrating a hoax ("Metal Machine Music") or wallowing in decadence ("Berlin"), he consistently revealed a witty gracefulness not unlike Charles Chaplin's dance with the globe in "The Great Dictator." n

Recently, however, Reed has begun to take himself more seriously -- perhaps at the expense of his art. Admittedly, '78's "Street Hassle" and '79's "The Bells" are two superb landmarks in Reed's solo work; nevertheless, his current album, "Growing up in Public" (Arista AL 9522), is so childish that it could pass for a contemporary version of Mother Goose.

As if to counterbalance a career constructed upon the shocks of nihilism and the sneers of cynicism, Reed has now become an egghead of positivism -- with all the humor of a smile button. The album's songs (co-written with Michael Fonfara) are awkward and rambling, designed for the arena-rock mentality. Beneath its sniveling sentimentality, "My Old Man" explores the theme of the album -- the search for maturity -- while the title cut subverts it through Reed's infantile attempt to touch lyrically his nose with his elbow.

"So Alone" is Reed's stab at Woody Allen's shtick, but the result is as pathetic as Frank Zappa's need-to-be-hip brand of comedy. On "Smiles," by employing the humorous chorus of "Walk on the Wild Side," Reed shares his desire to become an eternal optimist, even if that means grinning like the Cheshire cat forever.

Only on "Think It Over" does his new-fledged confessional mode actually work. The song is a lovely proposal of marriage, recalling the mournful chanteuse style of Nico on "I'll Be Your Mirror."

Simply put, "Growing Up in Public" is just not very funny. Whereas Reed was once as scatological as Richard Pryor ("Take No Prisoners") and as perverse as Steve Martin ("Transformer"), here he seems to be merely sucking his thumb, swapping punch lines for a pacifier.

Adopting the cynical humor that Lou Reed has surrendered is an eccentric songwriter named Tonio K. This screwball's industrial-strength rock incorporates every imaginable genre, from folk-rock to heavy metal. His musical style is more unorthodox, more compulsively creative, more desperately outlandish than 95 percent of the drivel that survives by riding in the form of the new wave.

Last year, Mr. K. released his debut, "Life in the Foodchain." Because of its prankish originality, it was virtually ignored. The album was loaded with hard-slugging protest music ("American Love Affair") and personal revelations ("Better Late Than Never") that saner artists like Bob Seger and Warren Zevon can't seem to handle anymore.

Tonio K.'s current album, "Amerika" (Arista AB 4271), albeit not as chaotically coherent as his debut, is not so much a personal vision as it is a revolutionary burlesque. K., who credits himself with "continuing vocal abuse, remedial guitar and growling," seems to be operating within the dadaistic framework of the Mothers of Invention's hilariously absurd "Absolutely Free."

But his social commitment is no laughing matter. On "Sons of the Revolution," he sings with the furious hoarseness of a modern Barry McGuire, and on "Trouble," he sounds the alarm against the creeping terrorism of reactionaries by musically simulating an annihilative war.

Yet it is when he reveals his heart, beating fast amidst the cruel wasteland of a technocracy, that Tonio K.'s music becomes less of an outraged protest and more of a sad evocation of a lost America.

On "Cinderella's Baby," in a vocal style reminiscent of Joe South's tortured phrasing, delicately underlined by Garth Hudson's accordion, Tonio K. passionately bemoans the commercialization of love via television ("Cinderella's baby, what you gonna do when the six o'clock news gets real?").

Despite his seriocomic lapses, however, Tonio K. remains a faithful lunatic, even creating his own modern dance, "The Funky Western Civilization." "You just grab your partner by the hair," he sings. "Then throw her down and leave her there."