Today's lesson is on the Class Clown, so no screwing around. Just pay attention or we'll paddle your bee-hind from here to the vice principal's office, pally.
There are -- write this down -- two kinds of class clowns. The most common is the blabbermouth buffoon, who only bags the "clown" title by virtue of disrupting everything. Rarer is the genuinely funny class clown, the one who picks his spots and depends on timing to get his humor across.
Both kinds are featured in tonight's sweeps-month special "Class Clowns," at 10 on ABC (Channel 13 in Baltimore), in which a few of today's more popular comics take their acts back to high school. Starring in the hourlong special are Howie Mandel, Roseanne 'n' Tom Arnold, Bill Cosby and Burt Reynolds.
It's easy to see Mr. Mandel in the buffoon category. Students and faculty alike look on with a mixture of annoyance, perplexity and fear as the comic prances down the hallways of Toronto's Northview Heights Secondary School, screaming, "I'm back! I'm back!" Cameras follow the goofball as he harasses students and plunges unannounced into classrooms. His reward for screwing around with no resulting laughs: a grade of D. And a look of hurt disappointment. I expected a little more.
I don't really believe that Roseanne was a class clown. Her husband, Tom, appears as a funnier real person than Rosie in this special where America's fun couple skip their own schools (hers in Utah, his in Iowa) and go, instead, to embarrass Roseanne's daughter Jennifer in the hoity-toity Westview School in Los Angeles. Roseanne comes across as a barely witty lecturer as she talks to the small student body. If she wasn't famous, the kids would be muttering, "Who is this person and why is she keeping us from studying trig?" Tom is infinitely more likable, horsing around with the fellas and doing all the classic class clownery. Rosie: held back a year; Tom: B-minus.
I can't believe Bill Cosby was a class clown, either. His humor is too plodding, taking a great deal of time to get to the point. In fact, meandering is part of his technique. His is not the slash-and-burn, split-second humor that's required in a pressure-packed classroom setting. Cos plays the host of sorts in this special, delivering opening and closing monologues that are nearly interminable. In between, he returns to his alma mater, Central High in Philadelphia, for an assembly in which the students accept him with screams and a wild ovation. But he turns the occasion into a long, mostly pointless self-tribute with virtually no humor and certainly no clownery. He gets a D and only because we don't want him around bugging us for another semester.
Burt Reynolds' segment, in which the star returns to the Palm Beach County School of the Arts, is by far the best of this bunch. The always personable and witty Mr. Reynolds could've, and should've, carried the whole hour himself. He drops by to give a few lessons in physical comedy to a drama class and chats with his high-school sweetheart -- one of them, anyway. At the school assembly, he responds to students' questions with humor and without condescension. Mr. Reynolds gets an A and becomes required viewing for the rest of these jokers.