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Comedy is hot in the United States today, especially in the form of young, off-the-wall types such as Jay Leno, Bob Goldthwaite and Steven Wright, all of whom come from Boston.

Wright said: "I once went to a place to eat that said, `Breakfast Any Time,' so I ordered French Toast in the Renaissance." Wright is known as a "cerebral comic," which is fitting for a person from Boston, known for its culture, its history, and for Harvard and M.I.T. Wright is unique and is very popular right now, having sold out Symphony Hall in Boston last year, and now has a contract with Orion Pictures to write two films.Wright and Leno appear frequently on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and "Late Night with David Letterman." Leno also sits in for Carson on a regular basis and has a lucrative contract with NBC for a show of his own. These comedians and a host of others have emanated from the Boston comedy scene over the past decade, suggesting an impressive new emphasis in the city of Boston.

The four hot spots in Boston are the Comedy Connection, Nick's Comedy Stop, Stitches, and Play ItAgain Sam's. Another one, called Catch a Rising Star, is the newest. Comedians who work the Boston scene can make as much as $2,000 a week and hope that they can be noticed in the same way as Wright and Leno.

In fact, the country as a whole seems more interested in comedy. Just a decade ago, there were only about a dozen clubs booking comedy on a regular basis, while today there are nearly 600 clubs nationwide. Historically, an interest in comedy or diversion of any kind suggests the need that people have for release from pressure. With national and international crises being common in recent years, there are many of us who have a need to laugh.

Some comedy clubs are open every night of the week. Most have a system that rewards the better known comic. The least known people will appear early in the evening, for instance, followed by a better known middle act, and, finally, a nationally known headliner. But in Boston, it is different. The order of comedians is decided by a flip of the coin, which sometimes discourages the better known comics from appearing in Boston, because some of the local acts may upstage them.

It used to be that comedians with national-audience potential were discovered in either New York or California, but increasingly Boston comedians are getting noticed. Some seem on the verge of hitting the big time, such as Fred, who says, "I DO have a last name. It's just that my parents promised me to never let it out."

Joe Yannetty talks about the problems getting around Boston. "In New York, they named the streets after numbers. In Boston, they named them after people. If you didn't pay attention is history class, you're in trouble." Billy Jaye is frustrated with New England's cold weather: "The only time you should be cold is when you open the refrigerator."

Brian Kiley is uneasy about his relatives: "I give blood four times a year so I feel less and less related to those people." Rich Ceisler talks about an especially elite town north of Boston: "I did a benefit for underprivileged kids in Marblehead. Just to see both of them smile was worth it." Steve Sweeney talks about his childhood: "I grew up Catholic, which is good because it gives you something to work out for the rest of your life."

These comics are obviously taking advantage of their roots and gearing their brand of comedy to their hometown of Boston, but most of their material could be easily adjusted to a national scene, or expanded. Many of these people will be making the rounds on the college circuit this year, and the traffic there is much greater than it used to be.

Comedy is so popular these days that some in the know are worried that it is about to become big business. Television is using more comics than ever, and situation comedies are proliferating at an unprecedented rate. Although people need opportunities to laugh and relax, they may be victimized soon by a glut. There is only so much room at the top for the likes of Wright and Leno - or in the long run, people like Carson and Hope. We would do well to consider, however, the long-term effect of comedy on health. After all, George Burns is 92.