From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Comedy has a classical meaning (comical theatre) and a popular one (the use of humour with an intent to provoke laughter in general). In the theater, its Western origins are in ancient Greece, like tragedy, a genre characterised by a grave fall from grace by a protagonist having high social standing. Comedy, by contrast, portrays a conflict between a young hero and an older authority, a confrontation described by Northrop Frye as a struggle between a "society of youth" and a "society of the old". A more recent development is to regard this struggle as a mere pretext for disguise, a comical device centered on uncertainties regarding the meaning of social identity. The basis of comedy would then be a plot mechanism conceived to engender misunderstandings either about a hero's identity or about social being in general.
Returning to the popular term comedy, it is known to be difficult to describe. Humor being subjective, one may or may not find something humorous because it is either too offensive or not offensive enough. Comedy is judged according to a person’s taste. Some enjoy cerebral fare such as irony or black comedy; others may prefer scatological humor (e.g. the "fart joke") or slapstick. A common gender stereotype that plays on this convention is that men love the comedy of The Three Stooges, while women do not.
While hard to pin down, it can safely be said that most good comedy, as with a good joke, contains within it variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, and the effect of opposite expectations. The audience becomes a part of the experience, if it is to be successful. Sometimes, it is the fulfillment of the expectation which is part of the experience, such as the long "take" of a Jack Benny, resolved, paradoxically, when the expected happens. Comedy is a serious business, and one only knows it when one sees it or hears it.
Forms of comedy
Dionysiac origins and Aristophanes
Starting from 425 BCE, Aristophanes, a comic playwright and satirical author of the Ancient Greek Theater wrote 40 comedies, 11 of which survive and are still being performed. Aristophanes developed his type of comedy from the earlier satyr plays, which were shamelessly obscene. Of the satyr plays the only surviving examples are by Euripides which are not representative of the genre. In ancient Greece, comedy originated in bawdy and ribald songs or recitations apropos of phallic processions and fertility festivals or gatherings.
Around 335 BCE, philosopher Aristotle, in his work Poetics, stated that comedy originated in Phallic processions 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.
Aristotle taught that comedy is a good thing. It brings forth happiness, which for Aristotle is the ideal state, the final goal in any activity. He does believe that we humans feel pleasure oftentimes by doing the wrong thing, but he does not necessarily believe that comedy and humor is the wrong thing. It is also not true for Aristotle that a comedy must involve sexual humor to qualify as a comedy. A comedy is about the fortunate arise of a sympathetic character. A happy ending is all that is required in his opinion. Comedy may be divided into these three categories or sub-genres for Aristotle : farce, romantic comedy, and satire comedy. On the contrary, the Greek Philosopher Plato taught that comedy is a destruction to the self. He believed it produces an emotion that overrides rational self-control and learning. In The Republic (Plato), he says that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, " 'for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.' " Plato says comedy should be tightly controlled if one wants to achieve the ideal state.
Also in Poetics, Aristotle defined Comedy as one of the original four genres of literature. The other three genres are tragedy, epic poetry, and lyric poetry. 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. Tragedy is the truest mimesis, followed by epic poetry, comedy and lyric poetry. The genre of comedy is defined by a certain pattern according to Aristotle's definition. Comedies begin with low or base characters seeking insignificant aims, and end with some accomplishment of the aims which either lightens the initial baseness or reveals the insignificance of the aims. A modern application of this theory would be the story the "ugly" guy who goes about things the wrong way, but in the end wins the "pretty" girl. Comedies usually contain elements of the supernatural (typically magic). Comedy uses the unrealistic in order to portray the realistic. For the Greeks, all comedies should end happily, whereas all tragedies should end sadly.
In ancient Sanskrit drama
After 200 BCE, 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 humour, it was associated with mirth (hasya).
Shakespearean and Elizabethan comedy
"Comedy", in its Elizabethan usage, had a very different meaning from modern comedy. A Shakespearean comedy is one that has a happy ending, usually involving marriages between the unmarried characters, and a tone and style that is more light-hearted than Shakespeare's other plays.
After the 19th century
The advent of cinema in the late 19th century, and later radio and television in the 20th century broadened the access of comedians to the general public. Charlie Chaplin, through silent film, became one of the best known faces on earth. The silent tradition lived on well in to the 20th century through mime artists like Marcel Marceau, and the physical comedy of artists like Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean. The tradition of the circus clown also continued, with such as Bozo the Clown in the United States and Oleg Popov in Russia. Radio provided new possibilities - with Britain producing the influential Goon Show after the Second World War. American cinema has produced a great number of globally renowned comedy artists, from Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, as well as Bob Hope during the mid-20th century, to performers like George Carlin, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy at the end of the century. Hollywood attracted many international talents like Canadian comics Dan Aykroyd, Jim Carrey, and Mike Myers. Among the most successful non-Hollywood comics was Australian comedian Paul Hogan in character as Crocodile Dundee. Other centres of creative comic activity have been the cinema of Hong Kong, Bollywood, and French farce.
American television has also been an influential force in world comedy: with American series like M*A*S*H, Seinfeld and The Simpsons achieving large followings around the world. British television comedy also remains influential, with quintessential works including Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Dad's Army, Blackadder, and The Office. Australian satirist Barry Humphries, whose comic creations include the housewife and "gigastar" Dame Edna Everage, For his delivery of Dadaist and absurdist humour to millions, was described by biographer Anne Pender in 2010 as not only "the most significant theatrical figure of our time ... [but] the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin".
- Ancient Greek comedy, as practiced by Aristophanes and Menander
- Ancient Roman comedy, as practiced by Plautus and Terence
- Burlesque, from Music hall and Vaudeville to Performance art
- Citizen comedy, as practiced by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton and Ben Jonson
- Clowns such as Richard Tarlton, William Kempe, Yukko the Clown and Robert Armin
- Comedy of humours, as practiced by Ben Jonson and George Chapman
- Comedy of intrigue, as practiced by Niccolò Machiavelli and Lope de Vega
- Comedy of manners, as practiced by Molière, William Wycherley and William Congreve
- Comedy of menace, as practiced by David Campton and Harold Pinter
- comédie larmoyante or 'tearful comedy', as practiced by Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée and Louis-Sébastien Mercier
- Commedia dell'arte, as practiced in the twentieth-century by Dario Fo, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Jacques Copeau
- Farce, from Georges Feydeau to Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn
- Laughing comedy, as practiced by Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
- Restoration comedy, as practiced by George Etherege, Aphra Behn and John Vanbrugh
- Sentimental comedy, as practiced by Colley Cibber and Richard Steele
- Shakespearean comedy, as practiced by William Shakespeare
- Stand-up comedy
- Dadaist and Surrealist performance, usually in cabaret form
- Theatre of the Absurd, used by some critics to describe Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco
- Sketch comedy
Stand-up comedy is a mode of comic performance in which the performer addresses the audience directly, with the absence of the theatrical "fourth wall", and usually speaks in his own person (rather than as a dramatic character).
- Musical comedy
- Comedy albums
- Comedy club
- Stand-up comedy
- Comedy film
Television and radio
Lists of comedy television programs