The title of Hey, That’s Funny! Comedy’s Greatest Hits! is basically true. Depending on your taste, you can find laughs here. The subtitle, however, is sadly misleading. If “hits” means sales, where are Vaughn Meader, Allan Sherman, and the Smothers Brothers, all of whom had gold records? “Hits” might also be defined in Grammy terms—but Bob Newhart, winner of the 1960 Album of the Year award, is also not included. Of course, the days when people sat around listening to entire comedy albums is long gone. (Album of the Year for a comedy record?) So are the days when radio played lengthy comedy routines, which then became hits. Today, comedy hits are instant, bite-sized, and ephemeral. Like that Bush/Kerry Flash animation from jibjab.com that showed up in everybody’s e-mail. Or a clever bit of Photoshoppery on someone’s blog. Or the No. 1 answer of a Letterman Top 10 list told and retold. The broadband, instant-access, always-on world, surprisingly, leaves us little time for sustained conceptual comedy. And so the majority of Hey, That’s Funny’s 33 tracks on two discs are random routines from stand-up comics who became popular on TV, largely since the ’80s. Even those comedians who had hits, or signature routines, are generally represented by other material (no “poop” from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, no “Noah” from Bill Cosby, no “Dave’s Not Here” from Cheech & Chong, no “Seven Words” from George Carlin). The curious selection must be purposeful—producers James and Ralph Sall claim to have listened to “just about every comedy album ever recorded.” Whereas the older material—Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic,” Albert Brooks’ “Rewriting the National Anthem,” National Lampoon’s “Mr. Roberts,” even Carlin’s pre-hippie, utterly un-PC “The Indian Sergeant”—harks back to traditional forms of theatrical presentation, the newer stuff is more rant than routine, typically potty-mouthed therapy from damaged souls seeking solace through a microphone. Which describes Richard Pryor, who opens the collection with “Discipline,” an autobiographical sketch from 1978 that now sounds more about child abuse than comedy. But Pryor at least could turn torment into art. Other than comedy scholar Chris Rock (“Blacks Aren’t Crazy”), few of his followers understand how to do this. Is “motherfucker” that effective when it’s every other word of your act? To judge from the pieces included here, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Griffin, Sam Kinison, and Denis Leary merely want excuses to curse in public and/or attack the less fortunate.

My response: Fuck you, too.

—Dave Nuttycombe

More from WCP