The history of comedy


MonkeyLaughHow long has comedy been around?  Check out the history of comedy in this “serious” article about how comedy shaped the world as we know it.

Comedy is one of the original four genres of literature defined by the philosopher Aristotle in the work Poetics.  Literature in general is defined by Aristotle as a mimesis, or imitation of life.  Comedy is the third form of literature, being the most divorced from a true mimesis.   The genre of comedy is defined by a certain pattern according to Aristotle’s definition.  All comedies begin with a low, typically with an “ugly” guy who cannot do anything right.  By the end of the story or play, the “ugly” guy has won the “pretty” girl, or achieved some other goal.  Comedies usually also have elements of the supernatural, typically magic and, for the Ancient Greeks, the gods.  Comedy includes the unrealistic in order to portray the realistic.  For the Greeks, all comedies ended happily which is opposite of tragedy, which ends sadly.

Aristophanes, a dramatist of the Ancient Greek Theater wrote 40 comedies, 11 of which survive and are still being performed.  In ancient Greece, comedy seems to have originated in bawdy and ribald songs or recitations apropos of fertility festivals or gatherings, or also in making fun at other people or stereotypes.  Aristotle, in his Poetics, states that comedy originated in Phallic songs and the light treatment of the otherwise base and ugly.  He also adds that the origins of comedy are obscure because it was not treated seriously from its inception.  That said, comedy had its own Muse: Thalia.

In ancient Sanskrit drama, Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra defined humour (hāsyam) as one of the nine nava rasas, or principle rasas (emotional responses), which can be inspired in the audience by bhavas, the imitations of emotions that the actors perform. Each rasa was associated with a specific bhavas portrayed on stage. In the case of humor, it was associated with mirth (hasya).

Comedy took on a different view with the advent of the Christian era. The comic genre was divided by Dante in his work The Divine Comedy, made up of the epic poems Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante’s division of comedy into three sub genres still exist today in various forms.  Inferno represents the darkest of all comedies, or what is known as dark or black comedy. In such comedy, one is forced to laugh or enjoy dark or black topics that one shouldn’t enjoy or laugh at. Generally, most who read the whole Divine Comedy find the Inferno to be the most enjoyable of the three. At the end of the dark comedy, one is still left with a sense of hope but one has not necessarily achieved what one has looked for. Purgatorio is made up of what most comedies today possess.


Purgatorio is light hearted, at least compared to Inferno, and yet one still does not achieve fully what one looks for. As such, Purgatorio leaves the main character with a sense of hope greater than what was felt at the end of Inferno. Paradiso is the most traditional of the three in way of the Greek standard of comedy. The supernatural play a huge role in all three poems, but Paradiso ends the happiest of all three with the main character achieving his goal. Infernal, Purgatorial and Paradisal comedies are the three main genres in which one can place all other comic forms.

The phenomena connected with laughter and that which provokes it have been carefully investigated by psychologists. They agreed the predominant characteristics are incongruity or contrast in the object and shock or emotional seizure on the part of the subject. It has also been held that the feeling of superiority is an essential factor: thus Thomas Hobbes speaks of laughter as a “sudden glory”. Modern investigators have paid much attention to the origin both of laughter and of smiling, as well as the development of the “play instinct” and its emotional expression.

George Meredith, in his 1897 classic Essay on Comedy, said that “One excellent test of the civilization of a country … I take to be the flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy; and the test of true Comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.” Laughter is said to be the cure to being sick. Studies show that people who laugh more often get sick less.


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