The origins of comedy appear to have begun in fertility rites associated with the ancient Greek god Dionysus. Playwrights like Aristophanes wrote works we now refer to as Old Comedy, which incorporated satire and farce. Later, Menander began writing comedies of a more literary style, today known as New Comedy.
Throughout the ages, comedy has had numerous meanings and purposes.
Medieval people considered comedy to be a literary piece that began with unfortunate circumstances and ended happily.
Shakespeare and his contemporaries in England had a similar view of comedy, writing plays that involved romances and finished with marriage. In fact, Shakespeare is widely considered the master of romantic comic playwriting. At the same time in Italy, Commedia dell’Arte troupes were fascinating audiences with a very physical style of improvised comedy. This robust comic form included stock characters whose qualities never changed. These stereotypes were highly exaggerated to suit the social status of the character.
While in England during the late 1600’s, comedy of manners plays were using a nasty blend of satire to ridicule and amuse the upper classes. The hypocritical daily customs of those in the audience were being represented in the characters on stage.
The advent of film in the 20th Century introduced a whole new meaning for comedy. Hollywood witnessed a series of hugely successful comedians from Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello, The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges.
More recently, the invention of television saw the introduction of the sitcom (situation comedy) and a seemingly endless list of mostly American television shows of this genre that remain very popular to the present day. Individual comedians have starred, including Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Rowan Atkinson, Billy Connolly and John Cleese, among others.