History of Comedy
Why shouldn’t you write with a broken pencil? Because it’s pointless. (Pause and laugh) I admit that was a cheesy one. But, here’s a good one. “I went to the zoo the other day, there was only one dog in it, it was a Shih Tzu” (Pause). And you know what’s the funniest joke of all? Me… While laughing at these jokes, or not, have you ever thought of how jokes influence us on a day to day basis? When Charlie Chaplin implemented his humor into a silent, black and white movie, namely Modern Times produced in 1936, he transformed his observations and anxieties about the rapid advancement in machinery industry into comedy. When Richard Pryor, according to city journal, used his “chest-thumping, crotch-grabbing” movements to cause laughter in the 1970s, his accurate social observations and his strivings for racial pride represented the voice of many in the black community through a popular, hilarious, yet arguably, profane approach. Comedy, in its different shapes and intricate expressions, changes and influences us in the progress of time and political climate. So, first, let’s chuckle as we look at the various types of comedy. And second, we will laugh while being presented with the history of comedy. Finally, we will guffaw when we see how sex has played a consistent role in comedy throughout the years.
To be frank, the History of comedy is complicated and hard to trace through a common thread. Comedy is an innovative and diverse field which challenges the comedians to have their own characters and voices. No one really laughs at a joke once it has been told over and over again. However, there are general types of comedies that have stood out; such as Anecdotal comedy, Black comedy, Character comedy, Cringe comedy, Deadpan, Improvisational, Insult, Mockumentary, Observational, Physical, Prop, Spoof, Sitcom, Political ….and so many more. I know right. Although the history of comedy is complicated and its types countless, there is such a thing as the origin of comedy. And of course, that place is filled with romanticized mythologies, advanced ideologies, and awesome literary masterpieces. That place is Greece. According to Ancient History Encyclopedia, the first evidence of comedy that we can find is in pottery. In the 6th century BC, actors who dressed in exaggerated costumes were often times engraved in a piece of artwork such as pottery. The second evidence is the poems of Archilochus and Hipponax which contained “crude and explicit sexual humor” (). Another example hides among the phallic songs which were sung during festivals to worship their god the Dionysus. The god of wine & fertility.
Ancient Greece was the hub of literature and birthplace of comedy. And if you look at the history comedy from its starting point till now, it’s staggering to see how comedy turns out to be such an amazing, interesting, yet sometimes, controversial genre. If you ask comedians what are the rules for making jokes, there is only one rule—Duh…it has to be funny. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Comedy as “a drama of light and amusing character and typically with a happy ending.” Comedy takes different forms in different time periods, but the rule and definition are constant in the evolution of comedic history. So, what is amusing? Humor definitely reflects the time and thought of the period in which it is written. What is funny for one generation may not be remotely humorous to another. Take the 3 stooges or the Mark Brothers, or even WC Fields for examples, most people would not find them funny nowadays. But there is one element that has been a source of humor from early Greece to the present—and that is sex.
So, let us dive in to see exactly how beep**ing funny is the history of comedy?
As you can see nearly from every comedy show in Netflix, humor is somehow sex-related. In the United States, the first amendment of the Constitution, adopted in 1791, protects our rights for Freedom of Speech. However, although the law regarding freedom of speech was established, the effort to actualize the law requires time. Mae West, the female pioneer of whom, wrote and produced a Broadway show, blatantly named it “sex”. However, in contrast to this show, the United States was still cautious when it comes to using sex-related material in public shows. Consequently, things did not end well. The show “Sex” was deemed as “street sweepings” in the New Yorker, and a “crude, inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted,” according to the Times. However, despite of the criticisms from the major presses, the show still went on popularly for over 10 months and attracted over 325,000 viewers. It was truly a successful business, but it wasn’t successful in winning the fight for freedom. Under such pressure from the media, the court decided to send Mae West to prison for ten days, and claimed her production as “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama” which would destroy “the morals of youth” according to the New York Magazine.
Of course, time changes. 70 years later, you can see “sex” on so many television series that it almost has become a norm of comedy. Making sex jokes is like drinking coffee, many people love it, and you can see it everywhere, and everyone has different flavors.
As you can see, the progression and evolution of comedy do not come to a sudden stop. Lenny Bruce, another humorous pioneer once remarked that , “if Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses”. In the 1960s Lenny was an extremely controversial comedian at that time who regularly joked about drugs, race, and religion and outraged many moral crusaders of the era. His bold style of comedy in the 1960s resulted in some of his work being banned and him serving jail time. The public was trying to shut down his act completely. After many years of rebellion to such restriction on comedy, he finally gave up his hope and became trapped in the unjustified legal accusations. In 1964, Lenny Bruce was arrested by a police officer who secretly recorded Lenny Bruce’s performance at a New York comedy Club. He was accused of obscenity when arrested. Despite eloquent testimonies from Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and others, the court still pronounced his behavior as “word crimes” and sent him to a workhouse. Granted Lenny was beaten by the cynicism from the mainstream society at that time, his will to entrench his legacy was respected and honored by many.
Aside from the allowance and acceptance of drugs, race, and religion topics in comedy, the courage to express one’s sexual orientation publically was liberated by comedy as well. On April 30th, 1997, twenty years ago, Ellen DeGeneres announced herself as gay out loud to the world through an episode from the sitcom Ellen as a character named Ellen Morgan. An estimate 44 million people, three times the show’s usual rating, watched that episode. You might think that nowadays, it’s common to see people coming out, trying to be who they are and who they want to be. But twenty years ago, when almost no one ever tired to openly come out in public, it was a highly controversial topic. Ellen used her way of humor changed the world. On Aril 25 the same year, DeGeneres spoke to Diane Sawyer and said, “I decided this was not going to be something that I was going to live the rest of my life being ashamed of.”
The French Playwright, Moliere, once said that comedy is to “correct men by amusing them”. Comedy itself, despite the simple goal to amuse, has a deeper purpose, a purpose to have monumental effect on a community. Comedy is a mechanism used by a specialized mechanic, who leads the crowd and challenges the outdated values left by history. Therefore, it is only fair to say that our society improves one laugh at a time.
Kanfer, Stefan. “Richard Pryor: Stand-Up Philosopher.” City Journal, Manhattan Institute for
Policy Research, Inc., 27 Jan. 2016, www.city-journal.org/html/richard-pryor-stand-philosopher-13173.html.
Cartwright, Mark. “Ancient Greek Comedy.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History
Encyclopedia, 25 Mar. 2013, www.ancient.eu/Greek_Comedy/.
Rich, Frank. “Mae West Sex Escapade!” NYMag.com, Copyright © 2017, New York Media
LLC., 1 Apr. 2012, nymag.com/news/features/scandals/mae-west-2012-4/.
Griggs, Brandon. “6 Times Comedy Changed the Way We Live.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8
Feb. 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/02/08/entertainment/history-comedy-keymoments/ index.html.
“Comedy.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2017.
Wikipedia contributors. “Comedic genres.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The
Free Encyclopedia, 18 Sep. 2017. Web. 26 Sep. 2017