Like a fair proportion of tonight's audience at the Corn Exchange in Brighton, I'd wager, I've not read Dante's Inferno. Before the show started, I heard several hasty beginners' guides from fathers whose sons had suffered the same fate. One told his offspring that Dante was German. I may not yet have made it through all the levels of hell but I knew that was wrong. Happily, I can report to the ranks of the under-read that they do not need to abandon hope: a thorough working knowledge of Dante is not required to enter Arthur Smith's version.
Smith is the audience's guide as he entwines his nightmare experiences of drink with Dante's journey through hell; he is our Virgil. Of course, Smith has his own Virgil - Virgil Tompkinson, a veteran of Arthur's first Fringe show, Swing-Along-a-Dante, in 1977. Virgil Tompkinson's vaudeville, holiday camp antics do lend the proceedings a touch of the diabolical, though not perhaps in the desired sense.
Inevitably with Smith, the road to hell is a meandering one. He is a master of making the extraordinary seem ordinary. This undoubted comic skill often breathes new life into old one-liners but in a production where one is likening a journey to hell to one's own experience of pancreatitis, one could be forgiven for indulging oneself further and hamming it up. When Smith describes hearing a drunk in a pub sing a bizarre, unintelligible song as an epiphany for him, this milestone almost passes unnoticed.
Though some of the gags have collected more dust than a 14th-century text, there are nice flashes, such as Arthur likening futility to writing his monthly column in The Stage, or describing how his hatred of shopping overcame his excitement for buying the sexy PVC suit for his Beatrice character. Beatrice (Dante's object of unrequited love), doubles as the nurse when Smith is in hospital, and in, a delightful moment of cheesiness, makes her grand entrance on stage to the strains of Beyonce's "Crazy In Love".
There is poignancy in all this carry-on. He gives us examples of his drunken frolics (most notably his infamous Edinburgh walks). His own personal hospital hell is fleshed out: the release of morphine; the relief of the smoking room; the refusal to celebrate his discharge by drinking with another patient (his "Lucifer").
Music by Erik Satie plays during the penultimate scene, and Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz" plays us out of the theatre. Arthur has taken us to his hell and back. If it had been anyone else but this prolific comedian, writer and broadcaster the original journey could have been a swansong. But shortly after his hospital treatment for pancreatitis, I'm told, he was seen in a bar raising a glass of mineral water to his friends and saying: "The drink has changed, but the jokes are still the same." Spoken like a true survivor.
Some people have an infectious laugh; Rich Hall has an infectious smile. Even when his material occasionally goes awry he can charm his audience with his sheepish amusement for the proceedings. Reprising his five-year-old alter ego, country crooner Otis Lee Crenshaw, for the Brighton Comedy Festival, Hall looked more at home than he did with his Edinburgh show this year. With more-than-able support from his smart and sharp band, The Black Liars, and propped up behind his keyboard, Rich Hall synthesises his cutting material with a lyrical Tom Waits delivery. The result gives the punters a two-for-one experience - a concert and a comedy show. The playlist is a mixture of old favourites like "The Scrabble Song", where lovers duel with words ("You could have given me roses, instead you gave me sores"), and numbers wrapped around members of the audience like Ali, the "chemist", with whom Otis is "pally" and has seen her "peak and valley". True to the spirit of popular music, even if the verse is iffy, Otis always has a belting chorus, and with catchy song titles such as "Do Anything to the Girl, Just Don't Hurt Me" you can't go wrong.
Rich Hall used to be the warm-up at Talking Heads gigs, so no wonder Otis is comfortable with audiences who are both excited and bemused. Though no psycho-killer, this son of trailer trash does hit out strongly at his targets, as in "Let's Get Together and Kill George Bush". Would you expect a Texan wearing a bandanna of the Confederate flag to be singing it? And Bill Gates is an "evil, impotent, bastard" (he admits he has no proof but imagines it to be that way). He has a knack of delivering such insults without seeming to rant.
But it will be a while before he is back on the comedy circuit, as he is busy with projects including an appearance in the film Red Light Runners with Michael Madsen, and a first novel, which deserves the cliché "eagerly awaited" after his collection of short stories, Things Snowball.
Having witnessed Otis Lee Crenshaw's ability to deconstruct the back catalogues of Elvis and Shania Twain, I don't think this country boy goes much on celebrity. Never- theless, his creator is gaining deserved exposure.
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