History of Comedy

From the ancient Greeks of 400 B.C.E. to modern society in 2012, comedy has become an integral part of our culture and has greatly evolved from its simplistic origins.

Ancient Comedy: The Beginning

All of the comedy we know today began as satirical plays of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks would hold festivals to allow the great playwrights of their time like Euripides and Aristophanes to display their well-written tragic plays to the Greek people. Watching tragic plays consistently would be very depressing and sad for the audience, so the festival would conclude with a lighter, more humorous act. This act was called a satyr play.

These satyr plays would feature a half-man, half-goat creature called a Satyr. He was usually very drunk, clumsy, and unintelligent. The character would poke fun at Greek society or political leaders of the time. Greek playwrights pushed the limits of that time’s common entertainment. They would shock audiences with rude and demeaning humor, and that’s how these ancient comedies became popular. They would cause such great controversy that it would attract many viewers to attend one of these comic plays.

Shakespeare Takes Over

During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Shakespeare took over the comedy scene. Unlike modern comedy, Shakespearean comedy didn’t really contain low humor. His comedy plays usually ended with a happy ending. He used a more light-hearted style than his darker tragic plays. He focused on clever puns and conflicting plots to keep the audience entertained. Unlike modern low comedy, his comedy required wit and intelligence to interpret.

Problem plays were the most common type of play used by Shakespeare. He liked intertwining plots to confuse the characters and use irony as a key element. Dramatic irony would keep the audience entertained and keep the actors themselves confused.

Slapstick Comedy

The biggest icons of the early 1900s were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. They made silent black and white films that would be forced to make the audience laugh without using words. Slapstick comedy involved exaggerated physical actions like the most popular pie in the face gag.

Slapstick comedy appealed to the masses because of its simplicity and low humor. It is one of the most simplistic forms of entertainment and remains a key component to comedy today. Vaudeville entertainment featuring Chaplin and Keaton became a hit, and it was a very cheap form of entertainment that allowed struggling Americans to view the films during the times of the Great Depression.

By the 1930s and 40s, talking pictures became the next big thing in the movie industry. This led to a decrease in silent slapstick comedies because the masses were so impressed by the talking pictures. These talking pictures required more creativity in plot development and script writing because physical comedy just wouldn’t cut it anymore.

Modern Day Comedy

Pop culture has become a key subject of modern comedy. Comedians poke fun at celebrities, political icons, and athletes. Movies commonly refer to current events or pop culture icons to appeal to the masses. Also, television has evolved with the times and sitcoms can be found on nearly every channel on television.

Stand-up comedy has also become a popular form of entertainment in America. The brave comedian single-handedly takes the stage and makes jokes about common subjects and current events. The audience appreciates the wit and humor displayed by the stand-up comedian.

As complex as modern comedy may seem, it can all be traced back to its historic origins.

Written by Randy Edwards, social media analyst and prankster from ComedyKnockout