History of Humor

Ancient Greek Comedy

Ancient Greek comedy originated in Athens.
"Old Comedy."  This time period took place from 480s to 440s BC.  Aristophanes was one of the early comedy writers of the time.  He often used sexual and scatological innuendo, buffoonish portrayals of Socrates and The Clouds, and mocked Athens and his two rivals Hemepis and Eupolis.  Old Comedy was almost entirely lost, but it later influenced European comedy. 

Middle Comedy" includes the works of Athenaeus of Naucratis and some of the older pieces by Aristophanes.  In these plays, the role of the chorus was so minor that it had no influence on the plot whatsoever.  Public characters were not personified on stage either.  The objects of ridicule were usually very personal (literary not political).  Characters that were often featured in his plays included courtesans, parasites, revellers, philosophers, boastful soldiers, and especially self conceited cooks.  None of the aspects of middle comedy were preserved.

"New Comedy."  Menander, the most successful of the three "new" comedians, gave an accurate picture of his life.  His plays tended to be more about fears of the ordinary man and his own personal circumstances rather than politics and public life.  They were very civilized and sophisticated which is what made him very successful.  Philemon's works were very philosophical while Diphlus' works were very violent.  No complete plays from this time period survived.  However, it helped adapt a new literary style, innovations in literature, and it influenced western literature.  

Roman Comedy 

Romans wore masks to impersonate characters such as glutton and the clown in dramas like the Atellan.  There were also dialogues performed at harvest festivals.  These comedies were very similar to Greek comedy.  The Romans adapted many aspects of Greek New Comedy.  The two most popular Roman comedians were Plautus and Terence. All of the comedies from Roman times that survive today were written by them.  Plautus was unique in turning his works into musical comedies.
Romans called the adaptations of Greek comedies fabulae palliatae which means "plays in a Greek cloak."  The characters in these plays had Greek names in Greek setting, but were understood to be Roman.  By using this method, the playwright was able to turn Roman mores upside down without upsetting the audience.  One of the most common disturbance of Roman values is the mockery of the father.  The father's power, aka patria potestas, was legally accepted in Roman society.  He had the power of life and death over his family and slaves.  In Roman comedy, however, the son and a slave would often make a fool of the father.  The slave was usually the main character who dominated the action.  The Greek setting and names of the characters made the situation acceptable to Roman audiences.  

Renaissance Comedy

Comedy almost completely disappeared for a while when there were only comical scenes of plays and stories. Renaissance Comedy is also known as madrigal comedy, which is a type of musical entertainment that delighted audiences at courts and within the cultural academies of Renaissance Italy. Groups sang a cappella, generally telling a story with loose dramatic plots. The first collection of madrigals, sung as a set and telling a highly logical, comic story, was called "The Gossip of Women in the Laundry", by Alessandro Striggio, written in 1567. Renaissance comedy was also an important element in the origins of opera.

Elizabethan Comedy

Elizabethan comedy consists of the works of the famous writer William Shakespeare.  Some of his most popular comedic works include "Much Ado About Nothing," "A Midsummer-Night's Dream,"  "The Tempest,"  "The Two Gentleman of Verona," "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Measure For Measure," "The Comedy of Errors," and "Love Labour's Lost." 

Comedies: Volume 1. (Everyman's Library)
Picture: http://www.abm-enterprises.net/shakespeare.htm

17th-18th Century Comedy

During the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, there was a division of humor between the elite and lower classes. Being more aristocratic, humor of the elite shifted more to wit and puns. They even rewrote plays, getting rid of crude and vulgar humor. Overbeke, a man of the urban elite, was well-educated, but he wrote a book of jokes. Overbeke stated that "it was acceptable to laugh at those who were physically impaired." The sense of humor in this social class was a bit more childlike, laughing at "toilet humor" and sexual jokes, and people viewed public punishment as humor. Overbeke became so interested in humor and joke-telling because his father died of depression, for which humor was a cure. The Dutch, however, had a different perspective on humor.

“Beginning in the late seventeenth and continuing into the eighteenth, conduct book writers, moralists, and theologians, all influential in the Dutch bourgeois culture, condemned immoderate laughter, especially laughing at the expense of another person."

Humor, throughout Europe, varied greatly within different countries and even social classes within a country. While the French elite and Dutch were more conservative and against laughter, the lower classes tended to have more fun. Humor played a much bigger role in their lives because they made it a role in their lives.

(Gale Virtual Reference Library.)

Picture: http://www.betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/?p=1092

Modern Comedy

The rise of Cinema in the late 19th century, and later radio and television in the 20th century increased the access of comedians to the general public. Comedy films began to appear more often during the era of silent films (before the 1930s). These comedy movies were first based on visual humor. The most famous actor of the silent film era was Charlie Chaplin. It was because of Charlie Chaplin that Hollywood comedy movies became famous. Then during the mid-1920s, animated cartoons became the new thing. They were the most favorite Hollywood comedy movies at the time. However, the popularity of these movies declined because of demand for sound and color. At the beginning of the 1930s, Hollywood added sound to their movies, allowing the industry to use new film styles and spoken humor. These films soon replaced silent movies. Charlie Chaplin was the last comedian to act in the silent films, and his films during 1930s had no words, even though they had sound effects.
When the United States entered World War II, Hollywood comedy movies portrayed more military themes. Due to restrictions on traveling, almost a quarter of the money spent during the war era was on seeing movies.
In the 1950s, television became the center of family social situations. During this time, the release of Hollywood comedy films declined. The 1960s showed an increase in movies using star actors, of whom became more famous after their appearances in each movie. In 1970, Hollywood comedy movies were influenced by the anti-war attitude towards the Vietnam war. 

Humor in the Holocaust 

Entertainers as well as newspaper cartoonists criticized the Nazis and made fun of them. In Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," he points out Hitler's insanity. Research on brainwashing has shown that the most effective way to block indoctrination was with humor. Nazis were afraid of humor because humor revealed their awful truths. Hitler, apparently, had "a horror of being laughed at" and even attacked people who poked fun at him. Bertold Brecht was forced to leave Germany because they had declared him an enemy of the Reich. A large number of death sentences between 1933 and 1945 were for anti-Nazi humor."Telling and listening to anti-Nazi jokes were acts of treason." Some people were put on trial for naming their animals Adolf.
Although there were many trials and executions, the anti-Nazi jokes continued.  There were jokes about the prosecution of joke-tellers as well.  For example, the story of a comedian locked in solitary confinement until he had told every single anti-Nazi joke he knew.  This took years.  An example of a subtle joke is,
 "Today in Germany the proper form of grace is 'Thank God and Hitler."
"But supposed Fuhrer dies?"  asked the boy.
"Then you just thank God.
Along with the anti-Nazi jokes, there were some accounts of humor being used directly with the Nazis.  Some of the best instances were when the humor went right over their heads.
Sabotage had a humorous dimension.  hen the Nazis came into the cities, people had often switched traffic and street signs.  Cooks stirred laxatives in the food for German troops.  

The cohesive, or united, function of humor indicates the distinction between the "in-group" and the "out-group."  The out-group, in this case the target of joking, were the Nazis and their collaborators.  The in-group were all who were opposed to the Nazis.  The wider solidarity was among the people who resisted the Nazis. David Low was a cartoonist who drew anti-Nazi cartoons from the 1920s throughout WWII.  He stated, "If Hitler was not succeeded in establishing his New Order in Europe, certainly he has established the United Nations of Cartoonists."  Cabarets were the first places to use the solidarity promoted by humor among those apposed to Hitler.  Cabaret performers did satirical sketches imitating Hitler and his storm troopers.  

Throughout all the horrors the people had to endure during the Holocaust, Humor was a way to help cope with everything.  In Man's Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl explained how he had taught a fellow prisoner how important humor was in surviving.  He told him that each day they would tell each other at least one funny story about something that could happen if they were to be released.  Other prisoners did things such as inventing "amusing dreams about the future."  One of the prisoners had imagined that when he was liberated, he would attend a dinner party and beg the hostess to ladle the soup from the bottom.  Humor also helped prisoners face the reality of their situation without going insane.  In an explanation of being in a group of people who were shaved and herded into showers, Frankl said "The illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor.  We knew that we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives.  When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other.  After all, real water did flow from the sprays."    


Make 'Em Laugh

Here we have compared the original performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” by Donald O’Conner in the 1959 version of Singing in the Rain to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s interpretation of the song on SNL.  

Make 'Em Laugh - 1959: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW02c5UNGl0Make 'Em Laugh - Joseph Gordon Levitt: http://pann.nate.com/video/210784532

Edited by us.