How Did Comedy As Mass Entertainment Evolve?
Comedy, or a sense of humor, is really a part of human nature and it can be considered universal. However, comedy is also a form of mass entertainment that has its origins in ancient periods. Comedians from the ancient Greeks are known to us, but there is evidence that mass or even organized comedy was likely developed even earlier in Western societies.
Some of the earliest jokes recorded appear to be about political satire, drunken behavior, and sex. These jokes come from Egypt, where a scroll dated to 2600 BCE might contain these jokes. However, some state that this scroll derives from a later period, perhaps around 1600 BCE. Mesopotamia also has some of the earliest jokes, perhaps about the same time in Egypt, where the earliest jokes seem to deal with flatulence. One of the earliest comedic stories known to us may not have been performed to the masses but seems to have been written for some audience or at least a likely larger group of people, making it one of the more complete early stories or even a play. This story is called the Poor Man of Nippur, written in Nippur from ancient Mesopotamia sometime around 1500 BCE or possibly earlier. The story effectively tells the tale of a poor man who got thrown out from the Mayor's office and being humiliated by the mayor. Three times the man deceives the mayor and beats him, with the last time beating him to death. While the end might not seem so funny, the comedy is in the way someone who is supposed to be uncouth is able to deceive the supposedly smart ruler. The man wears different disguises to trick the mayor, once even making money by tricking the mayor to think he had stolen gold from the poor man, who was disguised as a visiting foreign emissary. The story effectively reflects political satire, where supposedly enlightened rulers are not really that enlightened.
While Egypt and Mesopotamia likely produced some early organized comedic plays or stories, the best known tend to be those from ancient Greece. The Greeks formalized their plays into satire, tragedy, and comedy. Similar to Mesopotamia and Egypt, sex and political satire are the subjects for early Greek comedy by Aristophanes, who perhaps is one of the earliest known authors of comedy known to us, who lived around 400 BC and lived in Athens.