HISTORY OF COMEDY

The first-ever joke was from a caveman to a woolly Mammoth who consequently turned round and ate him

Lewis Black

Let’s start at the very beginning. Well, I say the beginning, but I’m going to start where the first payment for comedy can be identified, in Ancient Greece. Where Greek versions of Avalon and Off The Kerb can be found acting as talent agents and bookers. Undoubtedly, other comedy was being performed around the planet as far back as the seventh century BC: the Hopi Indians, Papua New Guinea islanders and Arctic Inuits all had had a tribal fool to ‘parody’ the elders and influencers within their communities. Throughout history, the village fool has remained an important comic character, but in the days of pre-science it was easy to confuse a person acting like a nincompoop with someone who had a genuine mental condition.  

So why the Ancient Greeks? How did they learn to sell comedy?  Well, it was one of the three principal dramatic forms in the theatre of classical Greece (the others being tragedy and the satyr play). People existed in such a highly structured and strict society that seeing it lampooned came as a welcome release. The most important comic dramatist of the time was Aristophanes. His work, with its pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and scatological innuendo, effectively defines the genre today. Frequently arrested, Aristophanes often found himself in court because his work gave offence. A heavy drinker and a philanderer, he died at thirty-five. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you comedy’s first Lenny Bruce.

The first lampooners

The Greeks were great innovators. Around 480BC they established the first troops of travelling clowns and acrobats, known as Mimis and yes, it translates as ‘mime’ but this originally meant  ‘to imitate or parody’ or if you will, ‘mimic’. Like a touring production of Spitting Image, these wandering players would pitch up in a town square and then rip the piss out of the senate and government by using expressive gestures and their unique acrobatic ability.  Although this was considered a low form of entertainment it was most likely the first example of “everyman” sense of humour, and all though it was offensive, no one was killed.

 

Serious comedy

In the 1st century CE the ancient Sanskrit drama, the theatre of India, the sage Bharata Muni (left) put comedy on a pedestal in his sacred text Natya Shastr. He defines humour (hāsyam) as one of the nine nava rasas, a set of essential mental states that everyone should strive for. Though once on this spiritual plain, chances are you have missed the punchline.

Crowd control

In the traditional Chinese theatre, there are two classifications of comic types: the wen ch’ou, who spoke and stood still, and the wu ch’ou, who were silent and used action. It is probable that the wen ch’ou of 1100BC was not only the first stand-up comic but also the first jester to be appointed as the emperor’s personal clown. This gave him the liberty to openly mock the Emperor for pomposity, vanity or miserliness. No-one dared question the wen ch’ou for fear of a death warrant from the emperor. If you heckled him you would die (see Edinburgh’s Late and Live in the early nineties for other examples of this equation).

Medieval Beadle

Royal clowns and jesters were found regularly within medieval european courts: they were an important accessory for every king and queen. King Edward IV of England had a jester called John Scoggin who enjoyed practical jokes. At a time when he owed large amounts of money to the king, Scoggin realised that the only way to secure a cancellation of his debt was death. So, he upped and died.

 

While he was laid out in state, the king came to pay his last respects and to forgive his servant of past indiscretions and arrears. At which point Scoggin leaped from his coffin, kissed his patron and thanked him for the generous act “which has called me to life again!” This happens to be the final sentence in Scoggin’s ‘autobiography’ – not many comics would be prepared to end their Xmas "taking the money and run" biog on a moment when they died. 

Clap if you've had the plague

In the 1580s, Queen Elizabeth I was a huge fan of Richard Tarlton, a comic and leading actor with Shakespeare’s players, The Queen’s Men. Bill the Quill was also enamoured with Tarlton: Hamlet’s description of Yorick- “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent jest”- (5 stars, The Scotsman) is believed to be Shakespeare’s compliment to him. Tarlton was the only actor allowed to roam outside the text, insert his own gags and add wisecracks to the audience about the play and the other performers. Think Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii. Frankie would stare into the camera and openly ridicule actors and action. Tarlton was also allowed to try out some of his own routines in front of the curtain before the play began, encouraging the audience to clap and shout. Was this the first ‘warm-up man’ in history?

Straight Britain

A further extension of bouffon was its combination with Italian clowning and classical theatre, giving us Commedia Dell'Arte from around the late 1500s and one of its students was Molière, easily one of the greatest comic and satirical writers in the history of the theatre. While France was laughing its stockings off, Britain was having the Puritan Revolution, during which any form of chuckling was banned. But once it was over, the English comic drama came kicking back to life with the witty, consciously artificial comedy of manners fronted by the writings of Etherege, Wycherley and Congreve. And we all remember them, don’t we?

Francais I say, I say...

Over in France around the same time, a new form of comedy theatre was taking place, the bouffon. Derived from the Roman word "buffo", this referred to a character who had appeared on the early Italian stage, 16th Century, with their cheeks expanded. Blows from the other performers would result in the buffo making a great noise of emission, but for the actor to have his cheeks in that position usually meant he was playing a physically deformed character (Italians love a fart gag).

 

Since the politically-incorrect French would not allow anyone with body imperfections to live amongst the general populace, the crippled, the hunch-backed and the unacceptable came together and formed what could be seen as a travelling freak show. Taking the name bouffon placed their flaws centre-stage. The groups explored a wide range of comedic genres including circus, farce, satire, slapstick and an early form of burlesque. Each town and city would have a Bouffon Day when the troupe was allowed into the main squares to perform, and were given special permission to mock the royal family, government and church.

It's Miller Time

In 1709, Joe Miller was an actor with Sir Robert Howard’s company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. A unique performer who used his supple physique to enhance many of Shakespeare’s comedy roles, Miller delighted audiences throughout his career. But it was his supper club and coffee house witticisms that really drew attention. He was often seen holding court at his favourite tavern The Black Jack, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, with his close friend Hogarth. 

 

However, many of the jokes historically attributed to Miller were not his own. As a serious actor he preferred simply to tell amusing stories, and much of his supposed repertoire was actually devised by his fellow drinkers. He died in 1738, leaving a tombstone which read: Here lies the remains of honest Joe Miller who was a tender husband, a sincere friend, a facetious friend and an excellent comedian. The following year, Joe Miller's Jests or the Wit's Vade-Mecum was published. The book became such a bestseller that clichéd, over-used jokes of the time were called "a Joe Miller" or simply “a Millerism”.

Clownton Abbey

During the early 18th Century a form of pantomime started to appear on stages countrywide. Small theatres began helping the Mummers to extend their traditional mid-year season to the winter months. The Mummers play was a traditional English folk tale that toured the summer festivals. (Think Glastonbury, Latitude…) The winter show had all the elements of present-day pantomime: stage fights, coarse humour and fantastic creatures. It even had a gender-reversing ‘Dame’ role, acknowledging the midwinter festival calendar of Twelfth Night, traditionally the day of the Lord of Misrule, the day where things where always reversed, and as a consequence men became women and women become men. 

 

One of the greatest comedy performers ever was born at this time, Joseph Grimaldi. He developed a clown character which became so significant on the London comic stage, that the name ‘Joey’ was assigned to all clowns as a popular tag. The name continued in popular usage until an unfortunate episode of Blue Peter. Grimaldi also originated a catchphrase which he bellowed out to the audience on his first entry. "Here we are again!" is still used by pantomime performers today. 

Restoration Restoration Restoration

Grimaldi secured regular work at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a very important venue in the history of comedy (see History of Stand-up). At a time of a theatrical decline, financially and artistically, the Irish playwright Richard Sheridan owned the theatre. His plays brought satirical and witty character back into British comedy.

 

Sheridan (bottom left) was also the first humorist author to venture into English politics, a member of parliament for thirty-two years, His gentle ribbing of MPs was much enjoyed by the intelligentsia of the day. In 1793 Edmund Burke made a speech in which he claimed there were thousands of French agents in Britain ready and willing to use weapons. To dramatise his point he threw down a knife onto the floor of the House of Commons. Sheridan shouted out "Where's the fork?", which led to much of the house collapsing in laughter, clearly the Regency Private Eye?

Minstrel Cycle

While Britain and Europe in the early 1800s were relishing the resurgence of original bold comedy, America was still finding its feet in the genre. It was giving the world, wait for it, The Minstrel Show. White performers were so embarrassed to present crude sketches and burlesques that they hid behind black facial make-up. Unfortunately by 1848 it became a national art form and the country went crazy for it.

 

Groups travelled the country with their shows in a carpet bag, proving that low maintenance variety shows could be accepted as mainstream entertainment. In the US this brought about vaudeville, burlesque and of course, comedy musical theatre such as that of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Frank Loesser and Cy Coleman.  

We are amused...

The second half of the nineteenth century in Britain saw comic opera make it big. Gilbert & Sullivan were the leading lights of what, at the time, was viewed as killer comedy. They ridiculed everyone: the royals, the armed forces, the church, politicians, people of every class and creed. No-one was safe.

 

In one show, W.S. Gilbert depicted every member of the House of Lords - one of the most respected establishments of Victorian society – as fairies. That’s the type with wings. At the time, anything more direct would have led to a prison sentence. He was, probably the greatest British satirist of all time. And at seventy four years-old, he drowned swimming with two naked teenage girls. That’s got to be better than over-dosing in a hotel room.

 

The early 1900s brought the subtle comedies of manners and the more subverting comedies of ideas to the stage. Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and even the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov began using comedy to comment on more fundamental issues. Chekhov’s one-act play The Proposal is perhaps the most perfect, simple comedy ever written. Once you see it or read it you will recognise countless comedy films and TV plots. 

Which is my segue to the advent of mass media: cinema, radio and television.