Comedy, a major dramatic genre that is intended to amuse, as suggested by the derivation of the word from the Greek word komos (revel). Comedy is associated with joking behaviour, wordplay, pleasurable feeling, the release of tension, and laughter. Imbued with the potentially subversive spirit of carnival, comic entertainment frequently exposes incongruous, ridiculous, or grotesque aspects of human nature. Its dynamic typically follows a fixed pattern of theatrical surprises that leads to a sense of exhilaration in the spectator. Of all dramatic genres, comedy is the most widely performed.
Over time, many varieties of comedy have developed. Farce, for example, seeks to deflate the pretension and hypocrisy of contemporary society, using broad physical means, such as slapstick humour or clowning, and emphasizing circumstances and environment over character development. Satire, another popular form of humour, primarily utilizes stinging ridicule and exaggeration to criticize or condemn humankind’s foibles and faults. While farce and satire both often produce laughter, their dramatic outcomes on stage can vary considerably. Traditional comedy, on the other hand, must end happily, typically reaching a sudden resolution with all characters receiving their proper rewards and finally connected to their appropriate mates or partners.
II ASPECTS OF COMEDY
The elements and techniques of comedy are diverse and differ from culture to culture. As much humour is derived from exaggeration, distortion, or inversion of cultural norms, what provokes laughter among one group of people may prove incomprehensible to another. In addition, more than tragedy or serious drama, comic entertainment is bound by social conventions that define the boundaries of acceptable humour and topics that are taboo or off-limits for humour. What is considered funny in one place and time may be forbidden or viewed as infantile or in poor taste in another. However, virtually every component of human behaviour is subject to comic treatment. This includes bodily functions, manners, fashion, eating, family quarrels, sexual desire, courtship, the procurement of money and social position, violence and punishment, religious piety, racial and social differences, vain presentations of self, physical shortcomings, cheating and lying, reversal of gender roles, and abnormal fear of ageing and death.
The array of comic techniques and devices in performance are immense. Over-the-top exaggeration and caricature appear at one end of the spectrum, and simple observation and understatement at the other. Typically, comic productions take advantage of several techniques, both visual and aural. The mainstays of popular comedy are incongruity (mismatched or illogical placement or juxtaposition), mechanization or bestialization of human behaviour, witty repartee, mutual misunderstandings, slapstick violence, methodical exposure of vanity or deception, and the victory of the protagonist (often in the role of the trickster or fool) over a social superior.
III HISTORY OF COMEDY
The first written comedies were staged in Athens, Greece, during the 5th-century bc. Of the dozens of Greek comedies written, only those of the dramatists Aristophanes and Menander have survived. Staged in the afternoon during an annual winter festival, the plays of Aristophanes were known for their unique blend of realism (in characterization), fantasy (in dramatic premise), and obscenity (in language and physical depictions of ribald behaviour). Aristophanes’s comic universe was peopled with masked actors who mixed figures from past and present, both male and female, divine and mortal, human and animal. With these unnatural interactions and cavortings, Aristophanes created a giddy theatrical dialogue about life’s meaning and the dilemmas of human existence. His Old Comedies—as scholars came to call them—broadly lampooned the feverish arena of Athenian politics, philosophy, and art of his time. But a declining economic situation and sour political mood soon dropped a curtain of strict censorship over the classical Athenian theatre.
By the 4th century bc, a genre known as New Comedy had replaced the harsh cultural critique of Aristophanes. Developed by Menander, New Comedy avoided topical events and instead created an imaginary world of stereotyped characters, including crafty slaves, impossibly foolish masters, love-struck teenagers, greedy pimps, and pure-hearted prostitutes. Menander’s plots were fuelled by the dramatic logic of mistaken identity and coincidence. By the end of a typical Menander play, each character’s destiny becomes suitably untangled, restoring him or her to the proper place in the social alignment.
In the 2nd century bc, Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence borrowed heavily from Menander’s basic recipe. Writing for a less sophisticated audience, Plautus in particular added boisterous characters, bawdy sub-plots, and sharp repartee. Other influences on their productions were Roman mimes, who typically performed risqué routines, and a southern Italian tradition is known as Atellan farce. The mischief of the Greek New Comedy was replaced with copy addresses to the Roman spectator and fashionable moralizing prologues. Terence’s Latin witticisms, often structured in epigrams (short, pointed sayings), made his plays a particular favourite of intellectuals more than 1,000 years later, during the Renaissance.
During the Middle Ages, plays featuring saints and biblical stories were popular throughout Europe. These so-called miracle and mystery plays were performed by local clergy, until their involvement was forbidden by the Church in 1210, by travelling actors, and by local guildsmen taking part in festivals such as Corpus Christi, and they often included comic interludes. These humorous episodes inserted into serious biblical narratives or dramatic histories of saints captivated the illiterate masses. Joseph’s confusion over Mary’s virgin conception of Jesus Christ, a Jewish spice seller haggling with Jesus’s disciples, and Noah’s frustrations with his implacably sceptical spouse were among the situations most often enacted.
English playwrights of the 16th and 17th centuries retained much of the medieval blending of comedy and other genres. Comic inversion and trickery animated historical dramas and tragedies as well as formal comedies. Unscripted slapstick routines and other devices of low comedy connected the performer directly with his audiences , much to the irritation of William Shakespeare and other playwrights. Yet, even behind the ornate and elevated language of Shakespeare lay a densely ironic, and occasionally obscene, wordplay.
Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, provided a practical theory of comedy, derived from his understanding of human physiology and psychology. According to beliefs of his time, the balance between four internal liquids, called humours—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm—determined the health and mental stability of every individual. When these secretions are in balance, the human body and mind perform in perfect harmony. But when there is an imbalance in the body, the dominant humour creates an overload of one aspect of a person’s temperament. This imbalance was seen as the root cause of abnormal behaviour and served, for Jonson, as the origin of comic character. This explanation was known as the theory of the four humours. Jonson’s comedies Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) demonstrated this theory through the eccentricities of the characters.
Commedia dell’arte, a form of improvised comedy that originated in Italy and was popular throughout much of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, also delighted its audiences with its depictions of aberrant types. Modern comedy emerged from its madhouse of masked characters—the gullible merchant Pantalone, the infantile servant Arlecchino, the vain Captain, the lusty serving woman Columbine, the idiotic Doctor, and the monstrous rascal Pulcinella. Commedia’s dynamic sense of character and madcap plots energized the literary comedies of Lope de Vega of Spain and Molière of France, as the art form travelled north and west out of Italy.
Commedia also gave British playwrights a fresh and adventurous feeling for erotic themes and contemporary satire. Comedies no longer had to be situated in distant places or times to achieve their goals. Like Molière, Restoration dramatists such as William Congreve found peerless material in the confused and sanctimonious lifestyles of the rising middle class. Their theatrical parodies and satires of social behaviour were called comedies of manners. These eventually developed into the 18th-century sentimental comedy, under Richard Steele and others, which aimed at encouraging audiences to uphold virtue and avoid vice, chiefly by stirring their emotions. Comedies of manners continued to be popular into the late 18th century, however, especially in the works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, although his plays show the influence of sentimental comedy.
Comic writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries to a large degree followed the successful formats and comic inventions of their predecessors, although the introduction of more problematic social themes by writers such as Arthur Wing Pinero and George Bernard Shaw changed the tone, if not the form, of the comedy play. More popular genres of comic theatrical entertainment—such as minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesques, and musicals—appeared during this period of rapid urbanization and liberated themselves from the artistic confines and restricted audiences of high dramatic literature. Once again, the ancient arts of clowning and physical comedy were revived in up-to-date modes of performance.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, silent motion-picture comedy developed naturally from these non-literary sources of low comedy. The separation of sophisticated comedy on stage from mass entertainment in radio, sound film, and television accelerated rapidly over the decades. By the 1930s Hollywood, the centre of the film industry, had created an internationally recognized style that harked back to the time-tested techniques and comic types of ancient Greece and Rome.
Following World War II, the United States witnessed the growth of the situation comedy (or sitcom) on television, typically featuring fantasy families dealing with everyday problems. Sitcoms were soon also popular in Britain and elsewhere. At the same time “black” or “sick” humour became popular in urban nightclubs, with alternative comedians attacking politics and social mores with shocking language and offensive imagery in the manner of Aristophanes. In the 1980s and 1990s these two trends merged in unpredictable ways, as censorship and the scope of Western taboos greatly diminished, producing television sitcoms such as The Young Ones and Absolutely Fabulous, and influencing stage comedy, with alternative comedians such as Ben Elton writing for theatre.
See also British Television Comedy; Restoration Comedy; Theatre of the Absurd.