NIGHTCLUBS: The Sickniks

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They joked about father and Freud, about mother and masochism, about sister and sadism. They delightedly told of airline pilots' throwing out a few passengers to lighten the load, of a graduate school for dope addicts, of parents so loving that they always "got upset if anyone else made me cry." They attacked motherhood, childhood, adulthood, sainthood. And in perhaps a dozen nightclubs across the country—from Manhattan's Den to Chicago's Mr. Kelly's to San Francisco's hungry i—audiences paid stiff prices to soak it up. For the "sick" comedians, life's complexion has never looked so green.

Mort Sahl, 32, the original sicknik, now makes $300,000 a year, but still manages to see the worm in the golden apple. Right alongside Sahl in the hierarchy of disease is Jonathan Winters, 33, a roly-poly brainy-zany who has spent most of the past two months as a patient in his favorite subject for humor: the funny farm. While these two once seemed more or less alone in their strange specialty, it is now clear that the virus has spread. Perhaps a dozen other sickniks—some newcomers, some oldtimers with brand-new syndromes—are cleaning up not only in nightclubs but regularly shudder onto the TV screen, and are even invading the record field; Inside Shelley Berman has been near the top of the LP bestseller list for two months, a remarkable feat for a nonmusical disk. And sociologists, both professional and amateur, see in the sick comedians a symptom of the 20th century's own sickness. Says one: "It's like the last days of Rome—all this horror and mayhem in humor."

Close to Horror. What the sickniks dispense is partly social criticism liberally laced with cyanide, partly a Charles Addams kind of jolly ghoulishness, and partly a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world. No one's flesh crawled when Jack Benny carried on a running gag about a bear named Carmichael that he kept in the cellar and that had eaten the gasman when he came to read the meter. The novelty and jolt of the sickniks is that their gags ("I hit one of those things in the street—what do you call it, a kid?") come so close to real horror and brutality that audiences wince even as they laugh.

The sicknik mood and method range all the way from the wistful social desperation of Elaine May and Mike Nichols, who are barely sick at all—just an occasional mild symptom—to the usually vicious barrage of Lenny Bruce. Where Elaine and Mike meditate on the problem of a stranded motorist who has lost his last dime, or a boss quietly trying to drink a secretary into submission. Newcomer Bruce, 33, likes to defend Leopold and Loeb: ''Bobby Franks was snotty."

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