LOS ANGELES, MARCH 25 -- Not even the death of comedian Robin Harris could put a stop to the laughter.

During the funeral here Saturday, many of the 1,600 mourners raised a hand and laughed when asked who among them had been on the receiving end of one of Harris's comic insults.

Filmmaker and fellow comedian Robert Townsend said, "He's probably up there right now giving them a hard time." Then his voice dropped into a gruff approximation of Harris's: "Hey, where'd you get those wings? K mart?"

Stevie Wonder performed "The Lord's Prayer" and "Ribbon in the Sky." Little Richard was in attendance, as were a number of young black actors and stand-up comics. Atop the casket was a mountain of roses from Eddie Murphy. Spike Lee and Mike Tyson had also sent huge wreaths.

As a nightclub entertainer, Harris, at 36, was a local legend. After a decade of going unnoticed by Hollywood and playing mainly to black audiences, he was being courted by movie studios and television networks. His dream of becoming "a household name" seemed ready to come true.

Robin Harris was found dead by his mother in his Chicago hotel room the morning of March 18, hours after performing at a sold-out South Side theater. After doing an 80-minute set, he went out for a prime rib dinner with friends, then moved on to a blues club before returning to his hotel. Exhausted, he fell asleep on the floor and Ronnie Tanksley, his best friend and the last person to see him alive, put him to bed.

"He felt so good, he was so happy," Tanksley said at the funeral. "He was proud of the show he had just put on."

A Cook County medical examiner said last week that the cause of death wouldn't be known for another couple of weeks. Harris was not known to use drugs. But according to those who knew him, he had a breathing problem that interfered with his sleep. He was notorious for nodding off during the day, sometimes in the midst of a conversation. His family and friends kept bugging him to see a doctor, but "he didn't really want to talk about it," his widow, Exetta, said Friday. "You know how some men are. They don't like to go to the doctor.

"I know he went and had a physical a couple of months ago," she said, "and he was telling me that the doctors wanted to check him out. And that was it. We never got any further than that point."

Exetta Harris is three months pregnant with their second child. (Their son Antoine is 10.)

What has touched people most about the death of Robin Harris is that his career was just about to explode.

He became hot last year with the release of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." As Sweet Dick Willie, Harris improvised the street-corner jive that got the biggest laughs in the movie. (Watching a young woman pass by, Sweet Dick Willie says to his buddies, "I better not see that naked on payday.")

Although he had small parts in Eddie Murphy's "Harlem Nights" and Keenen Ivory Wayans's "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," Harris had his first costarring role as a no-nonsense dad in the teen comedy "House Party," which opened this month.

The first chance most Americans got to see Robin Harris -- a beefy, robust man with a sweet smile -- doing his stand-up act was earlier this month on HBO's "One Night Stand." And what they saw was a man whose style was raw and uncompromising. "I know you read in the paper where a man broke in these people's house and fell asleep in there, talkin' 'bout he tired," Harris said. "I'da woke his ass up with a .38."

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last August, Harris told of an important piece of advice he got early in his career from the bawdy black ventriloquist Richard Sanfield (Richard and Willie): "Keep it down-home."

That "down-home" style may have made Robin Harris the king of the Comedy Act Theater, a club in the black, middle-class Crenshaw area. But it didn't make him easy to sell in Hollywood.

One white TV executive who saw Harris at the Comedy Act told Harris's agent, Bill Gross, "I just couldn't understand him." She didn't mean his humor. She meant his diction.

"I think the shame of Robin's career," says Gross, "is that when people were brought to see him, all they saw was his diction."

Topper Carew, Harris's onetime manager, recalls that when he took TV and movie people to the Comedy Act, "they would say to me, 'He's fabulous. But I don't know what to do with him.'

"Spike was the cat who saw it," says Carew. "It's a brother who was the first one to see it. Then after Spike made everybody else see it, everybody wanted him. ... Everybody wanted a piece of Robin."

At the time of his death, Robin Harris had finished shooting the role of Butterbean Jones, a comedian from Mississippi, in Lee's current project, "Mo' Better Blues." Harris had also recorded a comedy album for Polygram Records.

Next month he was going to shoot a supporting role in the action drama "Arrive Alive," starring Willem Dafoe. He was set to star with Stan Shaw in "The Butterscotch Kid" for Eddie Murphy Productions. And there were plans to build a feature film around "BeBe's Kids," four out-of-control ghetto youngsters Harris created for his stand-up act. (He would talk about his hellish adventure with BeBe's Kids at Disneyland; "They cut Donald Duck's feet off, put 'em in their back pocket, talkin' bout, 'We'll use these when we go swimmin'.")

CBS was developing a situation comedy around Harris. He and a white comic, Blake Clark, were to play a pair of inner-city cops.

And Harris was increasingly in demand to do what he loved most, performing live. The Sunday he died, he was scheduled to do a show in Cincinnati. His last week alive, Harris told Martin Lawrence, a young comic and a friend, "I'm happy. Every major city wants me."

Exetta Harris says that after shooting "Arrive Alive," Robin and she were going to look for a house. They had been living in an apartment in the Crenshaw area. "Getting a new home and getting himself a Corvette," she says, "those were the things he really wanted."

"A lot of times artists, as they get more successful, they get scared," says Bill Gross. "They get scared that it will all go away quickly. They get scared that they can't handle it. They get scared that they're not really that good.

"Robin was not scared of anything," Gross says, "and he was least of all scared of success."

Robin Hughes Harris was born in Chicago on Aug. 30, 1953. When he was 8, his parents, Earl and Mattie Harris, moved the family to Los Angeles.

Harris had been putting on weight in recent years, but in the funeral program was a picture of him as a lean high school track star. He earned an athletic scholarship to Ottawa University in Kansas, and he never gave up playing basketball.

In high school, Robin Harris also proved to be skillful at "the dozens," the art of looking someone over and coming up with instant, devastating putdowns of his clothing, his physical characteristics, even his momma.

He worked a variety of day jobs after college, but Harris would also tell jokes wherever someone would let him, be it a jazz club or a bowling alley.

"Robin would stand out at the bus stop and start doing a routine," says Myra J., a comic who knew and worked with Harris for six years. "And in a few minutes, he'd have a crowd."

In 1985, when a concert producer named Michael Williams decided to present a showcase for local black comics at a rental hall one night a week, he created the Comedy Act Theatre. And Robin Harris was his master of ceremonies.

"Robin would talk about you, your mother, your father and your baby, and you would still love him," says Williams, smiling. "He would humiliate you to the point where you praised him for that. ... People would pay to sit up front and be talked about."

When other comics went on stage, there'd be a movement of people toward the restrooms, because they knew that to stand up while Harris had the mike was to invite a public tongue-lashing. (The night after a Southern California earthquake, Harris zeroed in on a woman with a wild hairdo. "Earthquake did your hair this morning, baby?")

Some comics would complain to Williams that the Comedy Act Theatre was actually "The Robin Harris Show." But Williams says there could be no denying Harris's star power. He attracted such celebrities as Mike Tyson, Magic Johnson and Jim Brown. And he'd go after them, too. ("Come on down here to the colored section, Magic.")

People who worked with Robin Harris knew a different side of him. A sensitive side. One night during the early days of the Comedy Act, Robin came offstage and pulled Williams into the kitchen.

"I mean, the room was just falling to pieces. He was killing 'em," Williams recalls. "And he said, 'Man, I don't know what's wrong,' and started crying. Real tears started to flow. And I thought maybe he was in pain or somebody had just died. I said, 'What is wrong, Robin?'

"He said, 'I don't know what it is. They're not laughing. I just don't seem to have it. These people have come to see me, and I just don't seem to have it.' And I'm saying, 'You're crazy.' And I started laughing because it was funny to realize that this man was that sensitive."

Though Harris could match you insult for insult, says comedian Martin Lawrence, "if you said, 'Robin, I don't think you're funny,' that would worry him."

Harris was constantly coming up with new material, or going to watch other comics, or listening to old comedy records by the likes of Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Rudy Ray Moore.

"He didn't like comics disrespecting other comics, taking people's material," Lawrence says. "And if you did his material, he would confront you about it. And if need be, he'd go physical with you, because that's how hard he worked."

"I think the thing that he instilled in all of us was to study your craft and respect it," says Lewis Dix Jr., a young comic who was a protege of Harris. "I want to see how the younger comics honor him five, 10 years from now. I plan to do it."

(The Comedy Act Theatre was open for business last weekend, with Dix as the emcee. About 15 comics performed for a surprisingly responsive crowd. All of them said a word or two in honor of Robin Harris. But it was Dix who seemed to have inherited his mantle. When the spotlight hit one man walking across the room, Dix said, "Look at 'im. He ain't got a Afro, he got a Halfro. He's got rehab written all over him... . ")

Harris was also known for his strong ties to his family and community. His younger brother Michael managed his career. And Harris was very close to his mother. They even worked on material together.

"I ask my mother for advice on show business," Harris told the Los Angeles Times last year. "When people were sayin' 'Don't give up that day job,' she said, 'Go ahead, give it up.' "

As hot as his career was getting, he never gave up his $400-a-night gig at the Comedy Act Theatre Thursday and Friday nights. In fact, his brother had to drag him from the Comedy Act to catch a red-eye flight to Chicago for what was to be his last performance.

"Robin was discovered by the community, and he refused to leave the community," says Eric Reed, who in the past few months has launched another Crenshaw comedy spot, the Fun House, with help from Harris.

Recently, Harris was also hanging out Monday nights at the Comic Strip on Sunset Boulevard, one of the main Hollywood comedy showcases, and a place where Harris didn't fare well early in his career.

Harris said that even if he became a movie star, he'd never quit doing stand-up. "He felt like if he stopped doing his stand-up, he'd get rusty," says Exetta Harris.

Bill Gross says Polygram still plans to release its Robin Harris album. And he is trying to put together a benefit comedy concert, perhaps to be shown on HBO, to benefit Harris's widow and his parents. Harris died without life insurance.

"I used to bitch to him all the time about life insurance and disability insurance," says Gross, "not because I ever expected anything to happen, but just because it's a necessity, when you start to become a star, that you're covered." But Harris would always shrug it off.

As Martin Lawrence puts it: "He did what he wanted to do, he said what he wanted to say, and he lived how he wanted to live."