Joke in the Box




December 10, 1999:

Come on out -- it's safe to laugh now. Perhaps the best thing about the invention of the compact disc is the resultant proliferation of box sets -- enabling artists' entire careers, or at least large samples thereof, to be collected in an easily carried package. Rhino Records led the original charge with repackagings of Fifties and Sixties rock, and they seem intent on leading the comedy pack as well -- which seems natural enough, as the company began as a novelty label in the first place.

Among the available ready-for-gift-giving packages are The American Comedy Box, The Best of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, The Spike Jones Anthology: Musical Depreciation Revue, The Complete 2000 Year Old Man, Tip of the Freberg: The Stan Freberg Collection, and Dr. Demento's 25th Anniversary Collection. For the most part, Rhino's oft-celebrated attention to research and detail is well-evidenced in these sets.

American Comedy Box is your basic (Henny) Youngman Sampler, four CDs divided into nine categories of comics ("Pioneers," "Stand-Ups," "Sketches," etc.), with the expected strengths and weaknesses all here; running the gamut from Smith & Dale to Robin Williams, you're not gonna get anything more than the briefest taste of anyone in particular.

The Dr. Demento 25th Anniversary box, on the other hand, is simply a mess. The good doctor has been putting out compilations like this for years, and this latest repackaging is rife with overplayed and overrated stuff ("The Curly Shuffle," "Shaving Cream") randomly mixed with ancient (Larry Verne, the Detergents) and Gen-X era (They Might Be Giants, Beat Farmers) offerings in a mishmash that could be called anything but definitive.

National Lampoon Radio Hour sits far at the other end of the spectrum, offering three discs packed with the best of the collegian-targeted humor of the satire magazine's radio companion. Like the magazine, the audio material is hit-and-miss, but the sheer number of future stars heard here, whether destined for SNL, SCTV, or Spinal Tap, is astonishing, and Christopher Guest's musical parodies of hit rock acts of the time are amazing, especially assuming the massive effort required to mount and record such a show each week.

Spike Jones is a tough call -- how much Spike is too much for the average person? If they're true fans of humor in musical form, or simply appreciative of sharp playing and genius in the art of instrumental arrangement, Anthology should be enough, though it also might make them long for a treatment akin to other labels' ongoing assemblies of fellow musicalunatics Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott.

Finally, Tip of the Freberg is a beautifully packaged, lovingly assembled selection of the comedy king of radio, advertising, and 45s, with (roughly) one CD each of musical parodies, short sketches, segments from the United States of America musical comedy series, and radio commercials, supplemented with a videotape of Freberg's favorite TV ads from his commercial directing career. The USA disc is disposable, encompassing as it does random chunks of a work in progress that should be enjoyed on its own, but the rest is pure delight, from the prescient attack on commercialism of "Green Christmas" to the samplings of the comedian's current sound-bite-length radio show Stan Freberg Here.


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