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ALBUM REVIEW / COMEDY : 80 Years of Laughter in 'Comedy Box'

June 30, 1995|CHUCK CRISAFULLI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a fair bet that for as long as human beings have been speaking to each other, they've been telling each other jokes. And it's a plain fact that ever since humans have been able to use machinery to record their voices, they've been recording comedy.

In celebration of that humorous legacy, Rhino Records has recently released "The American Comedy Box," a uniquely comprehensive four-disc set that surveys nearly 80 years of the finest, funniest and most significant comedy recordings. From the perfectly paced absurdity of Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First" to the mad rush of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," the collection plays out like a perfect-world comedy revue, with both familiar and forgotten acts bringing to life a flowing history of American laughs.

The collection kicks off with a 1915 recording of homespun humorist Cal Stewart, whose first recordings were made by performing his routines over and over into one of Thomas Edison's wax cylinder machines, and who may have been the first performer to release a commercial recording of any kind. The set works its way forward to Robin Williams' 1994 performance at Comic Relief VI, during which he took some topical swipes at Lorena Bobbitt's knife-work.

Instead of being organized as a strict chronology, the set groups together comics with similar approaches to their work. Bob Hope and Lenny Bruce offer varied social commentary in a "Political Humor" section, and Spike Jones and the Smothers Brothers are both part of "Musical Comedy." Bob & Ray represent the best of a "Radio & the Movies" section, and a clear comedic lineage can be seen from Henny Youngman to Steven Wright among the "One-Liners." The "Sketches" section offers Cheech & Chong's stoner classic, "Sister Mary Elephant," and ends with perhaps the funniest bit of the entire collection, Albert Brooks' brilliantly demented contest to rewrite the national anthem.

The project was a labor of love for New York entertainment lawyer Howard Leib, who served as the set's producer. (Steve Allen was executive producer.) Leib, 37, got hooked on recorded comedy at age 5, when his grandmother gave him a copy of the somewhat less-than-uproarious LP "Homer and Jethro at the Country Club."

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"It wasn't really a very good comedy record, but listening to it was a heady experience for me," he explains. "Soon after that I started latching on to my parents' Allan Sherman records, and by the time I got to college I was a serious comedy collector." Leib culled the box set's 49 tracks from his private archives, which currently contain nearly 1,500 recorded works, ranging from Edison cylinders to compact discs.

"The idea was to come up with the funniest and most historically significant comedy records," he says. "We wanted the set to be a definitive survey of the last eight decades of American comedy, but it also had to be funny enough that someone with no interest in the history of comedy could enjoy hearing it."

Of particular historical note among included tracks are recordings by the vaudeville team Smith & Dale (who later became the inspiration for Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys"), a "Temperance Lecture" from W.C. Fields, and the decidedly non-P.C. character work of Sam 'n' Henry, who went on to call themselves Amos 'n' Andy. There is also a rare track from Andy Griffith's early career as a stand-up comic in country bumpkin character, and sketches from the very influential but rarely heard comedy groups the Committee, which featured Howard Hesseman, and the Credibility Gap, which included future Spinal Tappers Harry Shearer and Michael McKean.

Leib is already considering a "Revenge of the Comedy Box" sequel and has no doubt that comedy will continue to prosper in whatever recorded forms the future makes available.

"In many ways the recordings are a more personal experience than hearing the material in a theater or a club," he says. "It becomes a one-on-one encounter--just you and the comedy. I think there are always going to be funny people, and there are always going to be others who want to listen to funny people. Comedy's had its ups and downs, but it's been a part of every audio form we've invented, from cylinder to 78 shellacs to LP to eight-track to CD. I'm certain that if they come up with a little chip you can implant in your ear, comedy will be there too."

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