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Tickling Jock is a funny delight

For the past few months, Imogen Gibbon has had many interesting discussions with gentlemen of a certain age in her local pub after a hard week at work.

"When they find out what I'm working on, they all want to talk about it," she laughs. "Everyone over a certain age has really vivid memories of the golden age of Scottish comedy."

Gibbon's day job as a senior curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has been a laugh-a-minute since she started delving into the archives to research Tickling Jock, which opens today. She has also become a font of knowledge on everything from the origin of the name Lorne aausage (allegedly named after one Tommy Lorne, a Kirkintilloch-born comic who was a huge box-office draw in the interwar years and whose catchphrase was "Sausages are the boys"), to the little-known career-swerve of singer Kenneth McKellar as a gag writer for Monty Python.

Tickling Jock, as the name suggests, is the polar opposite of a buttoned-up exhibition with visitors tiptoeing around the gallery, frightened to make a sound.

It opens with a recording of Harry Lauder's 1904 song, Stop Yer Tickling Jock, and includes paintings, photographs, sculptures and archive material charting comic traditions between 1900 and 1975, from music hall, stage and gramophone through to radio, cinema and television.

The cut-off point of 1975 marks a line in the sand which sees the metaphorical handing over of the baton from the "Scotch comic" to the "Scottish comedian": Billy Connolly's appearance on Michael Parkinson's show in 1975 – during which he told his infamous joke about an unusual place to park a bike outside a Glasgow tenement – catapulted him to stardom. In one fell swoop, he had an audience that the old stagers of the Scottish theatrical scene could only dream of, signalling the beginning of the end of the golden age of variety in Scotland. The exhibition has also provided an excellent opportunity to dust down John Byrne's fantastic 2002 portrait of Connolly to mark the comedian's 60th birthday.

This exhibition beautifully explores the styles, settings and catchphrases that paved the way for how we laugh today. It charts the history of these rich traditions: character comedians (Harry Gordon and Will Fyffe); clowns (Tommy Lorne and Dave Willis); double acts, (Frank and Doris Droy, Francie and Josie); impressionists and stand-ups (Janet Brown, Chic Murray and Andy Cameron).

Many (Ronnie Corbett, Johnny Beattie and Andy Cameron) have loaned portraits of themselves. Cameron's is by legendary Scots cartoonist, Malky McCormick and shows him in full-on "blue nose" mode. There are some extraordinarily fine caricatures by the late Emilio Coia, whose subjects range from a Cubist-looking John Laurie (Private Frazer from Dad's Army), drawn in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a lugubrious Rikki Fulton in panto dame guise.

You will walk out with a big smile on your face, regaling your friends with catchphrases of yore. My favourite? Probably Walter Carr: "Do ye want me to do it with ma teeth in or ma teeth oot?"

Tickling Jock, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org) until May 25, 2014

Last week, in a preview of James Morrison's retrospective at The Fleming Collection in London, the artist's wife, Dorothy, was named as Daphne. We apologise for this error and are happy to set the record straight.

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