by Mike O'Brien, Bruce Dessau

The title The Best Stand-up And Comedy Routines really ought to come with an asterix and the footnote: ‘…provided it was released on Laughing Stock.’

For this CD and book set is a collection drawn from the archives of the comedy record label – in fact, the disc is almost identical to the 1998 release The Very Best Of Laughing Stock, give or take a track or two.

But even if the choice of what constitutes ‘the best’ is limited, the label’s back catalogue has quite a roll-call of comics to draw from, from Pete & Dud to Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan to Rowan Atkinson.

Laughing Stock was set up by three friends in 1992 to fill the gap between the audio comedy released by the BBC, which was mainly vintage radio shows, and the scant number of American imports and one-offs released by British record companies.

They were Colin Collino, who owned a cassette-manufacturing business, comedy agent Pete Brown, who formed Talkback with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones but who suddenly died of a brain haemorrhage just a few months after the company was set up, and Mike O’Brien, who handled the business side of things, and continues to do so.

Within six months the firm was making tapes by Atkinson, Billy Connolly, Ben Elton and Bill Hicks. And to this day it continues to make available on CD, and via download sites like iTunes and Chortle, comedy that would not otherwise see the light of day. And what eclectic tastes are catered for. This autumn’s releases, for example, range from a Broadway show by Whoopi Goldberg to a small London club gig by Spencer Brown, a comic making little career headway, despite some very good jokes.

This Best Of book, however, focuses on comics of an earlier vintage. The 13 featured are Rowan Atkinson, Jo Brand, Rory Bremner, Arnold Brown, Steve Coogan, Pete&Dud, Lenny Henry, Bill Hicks, Sean Hughes, Eddie Izzard, Greg Proops, Monty Python and Mark Thomas.

Each is introduced a brief and breezy introduction by Bruce Dessau, comedy critic of the London Evening Standard and a man who certainly knows his comedy. Indeed he’s interviewed every one of the artists here… and even used to be Peter Cook’s binman. The biographies might be potted, but they’re thorough and well-informed, and even the most casual of fan is quickly brought up to speed.

Then come transcripts of the routines and sketches themselves, two or three for each act. It’s always odd seeing stand-up written down – after all, it was never meant to be received that way. But almost like reading folios of Shakespeare’s work – you can almost get more from it in print away from the hurly-burly of performance. You can analyse how and why routines work (where laughs come is always indicated – and they’re not always in the places you might think) and enjoy the precise use of words. Oh, and they are, of course, still funny; very funny in places.

This is, presumably, intended as a gift book – and its fragmented structure makes it perfect for casually dipping in and out of, especially if you’re only a casual fan of comedy and don’t know the background to all the acts already. Plus you get a free CD for the car.

The Best Stand-up And Comedy Routines is published by Constable at £14.99. Click here to order from Amazon for £9.89

Published: 16 Nov 2006

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