If laughter really is the best medicine, the best kind of cultural medicine transcends differences rather than accentuates them.
That seems the fairest reaction to "Def Comedy Jam," a new eight-week series arriving on the HBO cable network tomorrow at midnight.
What? Another stand-up comedy show? Yes, but this one's segregated.
Put together by Russell Simmons, the creator of the Def Jam rap music label, the half-hour show purports to bring to TV for the first time a collection of "raw and raunchy" comics who play the black comedy/rap club circuit.
They're called "hip hop comedians," and HBO senior programming vice president Bridget Potter contends in publicity material that the series spotlights "a vital new comedy movement . . . [which] is to comedy what rap is to rock music."
Raw and raunchy? The four featured comedians in tomorrow's first show certainly use raw language and talk raunchily at times about sexual matters, easily justifying the midnight scheduling.
Host Martin Lawrence, who starred in the "House Party" movies, even acknowledges that the persistent use of a particular four-syllable obscenity might upset white viewers. But he insists, "that's just how we do." (One might also wonder when the phrase "give it up" became the only way to say "please applaud.")
But funny? Only at times, which is the best that can be said for most stand-up comedy shows these days. And at times "Def Jam" seems offensive.
Some of the humor projects stereotypes, such as when opening comic Bill Bellamy mocks TV commercials for home pregnancy tests. The white couples in the ads are happy about the results, he says, but Bellamy portrays a young black woman who zTC receives the same news angrily, calling her boyfriend to say, "you gotta get a job."
One-name performer Gigorge's semi-rapping routine is so dense in street slang that the predominantly black audience at the live taping at New York's Academy Theater obviously misses the bit completely. Lawrence suggests at close, "we got dictionaries in the back."
But beyond the urban dialect and mannerisms that make these unlikely acts to find, say, at The Concord in the Catskills, the funniest parts of "Def Comedy Jam" come when the humor is not necessarily racially specific.
Bellamy's bit on new technology that allows a stolen car to signal the owner its whereabouts, for example, could just as easily be on "Seinfeld." And Laura Hayes' treatise on wigs might equally apply to Dolly Parton.
And Ted Carpenter's closing sequence mimics the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reacting to a young Jesse Jackson with the same barbed sense of humor that Mark Russell brings to PBS.
Blacks still like the politician, he says, "even though we don't know what the . . . he's talking about half the time."
Elsewhere on The Weekend Watch:
THE SPORTS SCENE -- Fresh off a big win over North Carolina, the University of Maryland Terrapins (the men, that is), take on the Wake Forest Deacons down South tonight. The game is scheduled to be shown live at 9 on channels 20 and 54.
THE DEBATING GAME -- ABC anchor Peter Jennings steps into Ted Koppel's nightly stand to host a 90-minute "Presidential Debate" at 11:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13). The Democratic candidates are scheduled to appear for a 90-minute encounter. And make a note that on Sunday, cable's basic Discovery Channel has scheduled a three-hour "forum," staring at 7 p.m., in which each of the Democratic hopefuls will be able to make a 20-minute, unmoderated address.
THE VOTING GAME -- NBC's "I'll Fly Away" reaches its own election day Friday at 9 p.m. on WMAR (Channel 2), continuing the newly returned series' sensitive evocation of voting rights discrimination in the 1950s South as Lilly (Regina Taylor) prepares to vote for the first time. Another nice thing about this show is its view of the eternal struggle of child-rearing, as articulated by last week's episode, in which Forrest's (Sam Waterston) daughter got suspended for smoking and he took her out on the campaign trail.
THE MOCK-VOTING GAME -- You can't beat the timing. Producer Norman Lear returns to series TV on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on WMAR (Channel 2) with a new election themed show, "The Powers That Be." John Forsythe stars are a U.S. senator pondering a bid for the White House. But his home life is less than ready for public scrutiny.
THEY'RE BACK -- We mean the pledge breaks on public television, of course. The annual spring drive begins on Maryland Public Television Friday, with the usual special programming designed to pry those checkbooks open. The 16-day drive begins at 9 p.m. with "Wolf Trap Salutes Victor Borge," in celebration of the droll Dane's 80th birthday.