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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 discusses these topics in a more light-hearted way. 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 for performance. 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 of the mayor's office and being humiliated by the mayor. In revenge, 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 fact that someone who is supposed to be uncouth is able to deceive the supposedly smart city 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 by fining the mayor, as the poor man 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 comedies by Aristophanes, who perhaps is one of the earliest known authors of comedy, who lived around 400 BC in Athens. He was also very active in writing comedy, writing perhaps more than 40 comedies, of which 11 have survived.
Aristotle philosophized that Greek comedy originated from what normally would have been solemn or otherwise crass or obscure religious festivals such as phallic processions in celebrating Dionysus, which led people to make fun of such acts or satirize them at least. Aristotle also helped formalize comedy as legitimate literature and he defined it as a positive benefit to society. In fact, he stated comedy did not have to be crass but good-natured comedy could be positive to society and bring general happiness to the wider public and provide a public good.
Greek theater had begun to develop in the early first millennium BCE, whereby in the Roman period it had become the foundation in which Roman society developed their own understanding of entertainment. Titus Maccius Plautus and Publius Terentius Afer are some of the best known Roman comedic writers, who lived in the 3rd-2nd century BC. Most of the content was influenced by Greek subjects but development by these authors and the Romans begin to look more modern to us and, in fact, influenced what we would call modern comedies enacted today in theatre and even television.
For one, a key development was telling the story over a series of episodes within the larger story. Secondly, music also accompanied the wider acting out of the comedy. In the stories, generally, the character would undergo some trial or tribulation before some comedic way in which the problem could be resolved. Their works also developed key characters in a comedy. This includes a villain, a hero, dual characters who are neither heroic nor villains, the love interest, and others (e.g., slave dealers) that would be satirized or even presented in a stereotype that Roman audiences would quickly identify (Figure 1).
The first well-known comedic actor was Quintus Roscius, who lived from around 126-62 BC. He was a slave who eventually succeeded in buying his freedom. He was known to have brought comedy away from a crass, clown-like style to something more that would be about presentation and using wit in humor. He became something of a pop star, where even various well-known Roman politicians patronized him and he became a fairly wealthy man through his acting ability, perhaps the first known person to have done so. By 55 BC, large purpose-built theaters began to appear throughout the Roman Empire (Figure 2).
Actors were often foreign and usually of low status, despite the success of Roscius, often not being citizens since acting was still seen as something beneath a Roman citizen, even though it was enjoyed now by the masses. What Roscius did do is influence the style of acting in forthcoming Roman comedy, primarily where acting became about oration and presentation using gestures as well as using words and wit. Women were often not allowed to take leading roles, usually being relegated to non-speaking roles in plays and comedies.
Medieval comedy was often very different from what we might consider mass comedy. Things changed by the 16th century, originating in Italy, the character of Pulcinella had an impact in what we would consider the origins of Western slapstick comedy. This developed into what became known as Punch and Judy puppet shows, where the character of Punch would be joined by his wife Judy. Punch would be the character evoking sometimes shockingly odd or funny scenes on characters he encounters, provoking hilarious laughter from his audience. This type of humor made its way to Britain in the 17th century, during a time shortly after puritanical influence during the Cromwell period. Audiences were starved for humor and the Punch and Judy show helped change the mood for English audiences.
In the 19th century, pantomimes developed as a form of musical comedy that was usually not a coarse type of humor, as it was geared towards more family entertainment during this period. It perhaps became one of the first modern genres of comedy to develop that is still used today. Usually, pantomimes are performed as a sequence of character plays and comedy during the Christmas period as part of the wider entertainment that would occur during that time of year, traditionally after the harvest and in the depths of winter, when work would be minimal and celebrations building for the upcoming Christmas feasts. Vaudeville was another genre that emerged in the late 19th century as a type of stories told in a musical fashion with stories leading to comedic situations. Vaudeville developed in France but became very popular in North America, particularly Canada and the United States, from around the 1880s-1930s.
Recent Evolution in Comedy Entertainment
The next major change was the medium of films changing the nature of comedy. Naturally, film and television became different because they could reach a much larger audience. However, initially, it also changed the nature of comedy from something that was spoken to something that was unspoken, as early films had no sound and were little more than fast-moving picture sequences. This led to comedic innovators such as Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laural, and Dan Leno to develop a new form of comedy that would depend on actions or acts that would include pranks, tricks, situations that seemed impossible for the actors, or actions making fun of the intelligence of the actor. However, the delivery was important as it had to be timed to coincide with a sequence of events. This also influenced early 20th-century humor that relied more on surreal or unreal situations that would lead to a series of comedic events. This also reflected early 20th-century art that was also being affected by the surrealism movement.
As sound developed in entertainment, first in radio, and then later in film and television, comedy acts such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became well known. The sitcom and standup routines also developed during this time and the mid-20th century and have continued to be influential in comedy today.
Comedy themes that developed as early as the 3rd millennium BC are still with us today, showing that things that we find funny today have long stayed with us. Long before political satirist such as John Stewart, writers in ancient Mesopotamia and later Greece and Rome entertained their audiences. The Roman was likely the first to purposely build large and permanent theatres that were used to entertain the masses, with comedies being one of the types of plays performed. Many developments by them have continued to influence comedy routines still with us today. In the 19th century, large musicals that had comedy integrated within them were the norm. Television and film, that is a change in the medium of delivery, resulted in comedy transforming and adapting in different ways.
- For more on comedy in Mesopotamia and Egypt, see: Attardo, S., & Sage Publications. (2014). Encyclopedia of humor studies. Retrieved from http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1647783. See pg. 69.
- For more on Greek comedy, see: Griffith, R. D., & Marks, R. B. (2011). A funny thing happened on the way to the agora: ancient Greek and Roman humour : agora harder! Legacy Books Press.
- For more on early Roman comedy, see: Marshall, C. W. (2009). The stagecraft and performance of Roman comedy . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- For more on theatres and their role in mass entertainment, see: Beacham, R. C. (1991). The Roman theatre and its audience. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
- For more on Punch and Judy and its history, see: Collier, J. P., & Cruikshank, G. (Eds.). (2006). Punch and Judy: a short history with the original dialogue. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications.
- For more on 19th-century humor and its development on the stage, see: Wertheim, A. F. (2014). Becoming a Comedian. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- For more on 20th-century developments in comedy, see: Mundy, J., & White, G. (2012). Laughing matters: understanding film, television and radio comedy. Manchester University Press.