I've seen the future. It's a bald-headed man from New York.

-- Albert Brooks, "Lost in America," 1985 She really was tripping, this 23-year-old waif who held her hair back with one yellow and one blue plastic barrette to achieve a look weirdly derivative of Pebbles Flintstone. Onstage, her eyes dilated in chemical confusion as she hyperventilated and ranted about a giant paper shredder in the street and how sorry she was to have wrecked the car and "Mom, I only need $2,000, at least."

Her name was something like Ro\secup, and she wasn't even on the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival program. "This piece started about an hour ago when I took Ecstasy," she told the beer-soaked audience. She peeled off her thrift store varsity-letter jacket and stood vulnerable in a thin undershirt. "We're all gonna be together. My art is your art."

"Perky!" a ski bum bellowed. "Take it off!" Things were finally getting dangerous here at the nation's largest gathering of humor professionals.

"These are not for you to look at!" Pebbles/Rosecup shrieked. She ended up wrap ping herself in masking tape and stammering, "I'm gonna have to finish this alone."

When she bolted from the stage, people laughed and clapped, but they must have realized: That wasn't funny at all. It was almost painful. It was about anger, insanity, fear and soul-searing insecurity. Which is to say, it was the heart of comedy.

The goal was to find out what's funny today, and also to make deals. Desperate for solid comedy scripts and talent -- where's the next "Seinfeld" or "Dumb and Dumber"? -- a horde of entertainment industry weasels holed up here for a week, supported only by huge expense accounts. They foraged incessantly for new forms of theatrical, stand-up and cinematic humor -- on occasion taking time out to ski, seeing as how there seemed to be a concentration of snow and mountains in the vicinity. Aspen, where Brian "Kato" Kaelin first met Nicole Brown Simpson and thus lurched toward his eventual buffoonish fame, made the logical setting.

HBO, which has given young comedians the right to swear on television for 20 years, dropped about $3.5 million to establish the first U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. It gathered 70-plus performers for 40 shows, in what the cable network says will become a Sundance-style showcase for risky humor in all forms.

This comes at a good time. Comedy, which relies on surprise, is more predictable than ever. In an art form that must constantly reinvent itself, the only clear trend is stagnation. You know there's a yawning National Humor Deficit when Hillary "Gump" Clinton's video at a national press dinner is funnier than half of the stand-ups who got TV sitcom deals last year.

Here are the tragic facts. The once-mighty David Letterman is batting about .200 for solid yuks. Supposedly fresh sitcoms -- take "Ellen," please -- turn out to be formulaic retreads of "Seinfeld." The once-vital "Saturday Night Live" has devolved into a really bad joke, frequently interrupted by commercials.

Established greats such as Robin Williams and Steve Martin have turned semi-serious. "Def Comedy Jam" is shockingly tiresome. And everyone knows that Hollywood didn't deliver one funny movie last year, unless you count the twisted dialogue of "Pulp Fiction." (The ever-reliable if reprehensible Woody Allen made "Bullets Over Broadway" with foreign money.)

"We haven't made any knee-slappers," admitted HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs. "But those things don't get made by HBO because they're so valuable -- they jump immediately to {the movie studios}. You have good comedy scripts, boy, they just go."

In Hollywood, though, the prevailing trend is toward the shopworn: Studios either recycle '60s sitcoms -- one attendee breathlessly revealed that an "F Troop" movie is in development -- or they rewrite the latest box office success. "Dumb and Dumber" is certain to be cloned, a studio executive predicted. Only one problem: There's only one Jim Carrey. Working the Fringes

Here's a little ghost for the offering . . . Mr. Andy Kaufman's gone wrestling.

-- R.E.M., "Man on the Moon," 1992

As always, we turn to the young with hopes for deliverance. The funniest acts here, the ones that made your cheeks ache, are in their twenties or early thirties. They are extremely cynical. Like Letterman, they make fun of trying to be funny. But some try to break out of the box, to find some new way of making people laugh, something Aristophanes and Shakespeare and Twain and Buster Keaton and Chaplin and Jack Benny all missed.

"They are hard-line, brutally honest, a lot more dangerous and kind of subversive," opined Margaret Cho, who hosted a new artists showcase here and has her own ABC series, "All-American Girl." "This festival is real important to the new movement of honest comedy. It's much more personal, much braver."

The new breed delights in smashing what few taboos remain, loosing personal demons and opening their veins. They swear like hell. They talk an awful lot about masturbation and other sexual encounters. Kathy Griffin, a Los Angeles "alternative" comedian, did most of her act in her brassiere. ("That is such a thinly veiled cry for help," she cracked when someone in the late-night audience snapped her picture.)

Sexual frankness is not new, of course. Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne have done it. So have Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, Sam Kinison, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Even "Seinfeld" got away with a plot based on George's use of a Glamour magazine for Onanistic release.

But on TV they usually sand the edginess off. Networks will take today's challenging comedians and put them in roles where they'll be revealed as warm, likable individuals deep down. Sitcoms rely on a formula whose first requirement is: "Average Americans must want to invite this person into their homes, week after week" (e.g.: "All-American Girl"). Safety sells. "Seinfeld" is the funniest, most successful show in part because Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are all reassuring losers.

The festival's rabbis were comics with intellectual heft and outsider status: Garry Shandling, whose acerbic industry parody, "The Larry Sanders Show," is half the reason to pay 10 bucks a month to get HBO; and Albert Brooks, whom many critics consider the funniest man in Hollywood but who loathes Hollywood. ("When the studios no longer want you, this is your living," Brooks gibed before receiving an award honoring his infrequent work.)

Also present in non-corporeal form was Andy Kaufman (1949-'84), whose friends came here to remember him as the renegade father of modern comic performance art. Kaufman's influence could be clearly seen in the dark, confrontational and self-referential performances of the alternative comics, who call him a genius.

Consider the Pebbles-tripping-on-Ecstasy act. Mary Lynn Rajskub is the 23-year-old waif who imploded onstage. Classic Kaufman.

Was it for real? No . . . well, yes. It was a total put-on, as expertly staged as Kaufman's women-bashing wrestling performances and his famous dust-ups on the old "Fridays" and "Letterman" shows. It was meant to provoke the audience. It was notable because it surprised us.

"It's a girl doing a performance piece set in a comedy club -- it was real, but it's acting, you know what I mean?" says Rajskub, a regular at the Uncabaret, a Los Angeles non-stand-up club where performers shun one-liners in favor of high concept ("playing to the back of the room," they call it in the biz). "I can't do mainstream stand-up. I know that I can't just stand there and tell a joke."

Trends are hard to spot in comedy, but this is one. The business is downsizing; many of the two-drink-minimum clubs that opened in the comedy boom '80s are folding. The survivors of the old circuit will be character-driven experimenters, sketch artists, unpredictable and absurd. "There seems to be a little stronger trend toward performance art and theatrical presentation of comedy, as opposed to straight stand-up," says HBO's Fuchs.

What the business really needs is "courageous" performers willing to "walk on a tightrope," says George Shapiro, an executive producer of "Seinfeld." He backed Kaufman's career on network television and also believed in Michael Richards, a relative unknown before he found fame as Cosmo Kramer. "There's a tremendous connection between Michael and Andy because they do dangerous work," said Shapiro.

"The first time I saw Andy, his act consisted of eating a bowl of potatoes onstage and then going to sleep in a sleeping bag for 35 minutes," recalled Bob Zmuda, Kaufman's friend and writer. "It was real close to Warhol."

While performers like Rajskub remain on the fringes, others with a few more years' experience are headed for sitcoms. D.C.-schooled Dave Chappelle's lampoon of white-black relationships was a big hit here ("The Jews are my favorite white people. You're the only white people who can grow an Afro if you want to"). He's just landed the co-starring role in "Buddies," an ABC sitcom.

The trend in TV, inspired by the success of "Seinfeld," is to find strong personalities to base scripts on. Scott Schneider, 28, a talent executive for the Comedy Central cable channel, spent his nights nights assaying the potential of young performers at the Mustang Cafe. "People here will get deals," he predicted.

Schneider has been tracking talent in the clubs for six years. He is from New York. He is quite bald. He knows from funny. Turning on Oneself

"This guy kills," Schneider advises from his chair at the Mustang as Dave Attell takes the stage. "Very funny."

If you like Amish sex jokes ("Oh, Jebediah, churn my butter, oh ye, oh ye, let's party like it's 1899!") you'll love Attell. He's 30 and a regular at New York's Rebar, which transforms Monday nights into a non-stand-up club where microphones are banned. He was one of five comics who made the cut for Shandling's live HBO special from Aspen.

"He's a comic's comic -- highly respected in the industry," says Schneider. "He's got that edge. He's not middle America."

Which is good: "The sign of a great comedian is not conforming to the public, but having the public conform to you," Schneider says.

Attell's stage persona veers into rough-trade territory: stalking, porno-watching and child kidnapping. But he narrowly avoids stepping off the cliff -- that is, making us hate him, which was Kaufman's big mistake. Attell is careful to put his own lame loserdom at the center of his shtick. He's going bald, he's ugly, he's the "Jean-Claude Van Hand" of lonely self-gratification.

"Look at me," he implores. "I'm not very good with the ladies. Look at me: I'm a freak. I've got this kind of Paul-Simon-meets-Frank-Sinatra-Jr.-in a-hi\gh-speed-car-crash-with-Gilligan look."

After the set, Attell sucks on a cigarette and wonders why he's such a failure. "Did you hear laughter?" he asks. "I didn't. It was poignant. No laughter."

This isn't an act. It's genuine self-flagellation, the source of much great comedy. Anybody who's good believes deep down that he's really not good. That's why Attell works so hard. Fear of suckdom.

In a national magazine ad promoting the festival, HBO listed the hallowed names of Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis and Ellen DeGeneres. And last, representing the future, "Dave Atell." Misspelled, naturally.

On the final night of the festival, after slaying 'em on the Shandling show, Attell is seen climbing from a snow-covered Jeep. It's 2:20 a.m. He trudges toward his hotel.

What's up, Dave?

"I just hooked up with three of the hottest chicks in Aspen," he says.

So what happened?

"Nothing," he moans.

Why not?

"Look at me!" Winners and Losers

Many of the up-and-coming Gen-X comics draw upon deep wells of fear and self-doubt. "A self-destructive manic-depressive" is one exec's off-the-record characterization of one hot comic. "Won't touch him."

Of course, in art of any kind, the fire in the brain is often the primary inspiration, the key to talent.

So are Tinseltown and TV land really ready for such fiery, intellectual performers as Attell, Dana Gould, Louis "C.K." Szekely, Craig Anton, Marc Maron, Ricky Harris, Greer Barnes, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Colleen Kruse and Anthony Clark?

These names may mean nothing to you -- yet -- but listen to L.A. agent James Kellem, who is earnestly packaging players for new sitcoms.

"Anthony Clark. He's likable and good-looking," says Kellem, senior vice president of the Agency for the Performing Arts. "So even if he says these terrible things, that's okay." (Among Clark's lines: "I'm just so tired of stupid people. There are so many stupid people I want to have my own game show on CBS every night called I don't {expletive} believe it!' ")

Anyone else?

"Colleen Kruse I liked," says Kellem, wearing a ski bib in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom at a boozy festival-closing party. "I called her manager and said Colleen should read for a part in the ABC pilot we're doing."

Kruse, 26, is a fair-haired former welfare mom from St. Paul, Minn.; as part of her act she reads deeply personal and sweetly skewed entries from her journal, including a John Cougarish account of losing her virginity at age 15 on an unlit baseball diamond. She is putting out a CD of her stories.

"The ABC show is called Best Defense,' and the part is a young female public defender," continues Kellem. "Colleen's no-nonsense attitude is good. And the part is described as someone who looks a little grungy, so her short hair is good."

Later, Kruse is informed of her desirability as a stereotypically grungy, no-nonsense sitcom babe. She looks somewhat queasy, then demonstrates her best toothy Marilyn Monroe smile and purrs, "I could be a public defender, sure I could."

Selling out: What a concept! Coming to a non-comedy club near you soon.

Elsewhere in the ballroom, Mary Lynn Rajskub quaffs a free Heineken. She surveys the foaming sea of party animals, and speaks of her dream. "You get these people to pay you a lot of money and then all these people will come to see you and you can tell them how wrong that is. That would be the best!" But apparently there are no deals for someone who ends her act wrapped in masking tape. So what will she take home from the first U.S. Comedy Arts Festival?

"I got some free lip balm and a T-shirt at one of the parties," she says, looking utterly satisfied. CAPTION: Dave Chappelle is prepped for his act at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. CAPTION: Louis "C.K." Szekely, Mark Manon and Dave Attell in Aspen.