Swortzell teaches educational theater at NYU and his assured, no-nonsense history of comedy includes biographical sketches of dramatists and actors, excerpts of a few pages each from The Birds, commedia dell'arte, The Rivals, and other comedies, plus background information on the role of clowns and comedy in Western theater, court life, and society in general. Swortzell considers jesters, street players, mimes, and circus clowns as well as actors of the legitimate stage, and he includes a brief overview of comedy in Asia, past and present. Shortcomings of the survey approach are most noticeable with the more recent and familiar material, when he whirls nonstop from Zazu Pitts. . . to Jerry Lewis. . . to Jacques Taft and Woody Allen. (It seems hardly worth mentioning radio's Bob and Ray, for example, simply to register their names. And British comedy appears to end with the Goon Show--there's nary a hint of Monty Python.) Earlier sections however contain reference material for class reports, enough excerpts and continuity for a drama-class program, and--with items on the origin of ""Jim Crow,"" Moliere's death while performing in The Imaginary Invalid, and the high status of Elizabeth I's jester--much to interest the casual reader.