Skip to main content
Select Source:

comedy

comedy, literary work that aims primarily to provoke laughter. Unlike tragedy, which seeks to engage profound emotions and sympathies, comedy strives to entertain chiefly through criticism and ridicule of man's customs and institutions.

Although usually used in reference to the drama (see drama, Western; Asian drama), in the Middle Ages comedy was associated with vernacular language and a happy ending. Thus, the term was also applied to such non-dramatic works as Dante's religious poem, The Divine Comedy.

Evolution of Comedy

Dramatic comedy grew out of the boisterous choruses and dialogue of the fertility rites of the feasts of the Greek god Dionysus. What became known to theater historians as Old Comedy in ancient Greece was a series of loosely connected scenes (using a chorus and individual characters) in which a particular situation was thoroughly exploited through farce, fantasy, satire, and parody, the series ending in a lyrical celebration of unity.

Reaching its height in the brilliantly scathing plays of Aristophanes, Old Comedy gradually declined and was replaced by a less vital and imaginative drama. In New Comedy, generally considered to have begun in the mid-4th cent. BC, the plays were more consciously literary, often romantic in tone, and decidedly less satirical and critical. Menander was the most famous writer of New Comedy.

During the Middle Ages the Church strove to keep the joyous and critical aspects of the drama to a minimum, but comic drama survived in medieval folk plays and festivals, in the Italian commedia dell'arte, in mock liturgical dramas, and in the farcical elements of miracle and morality plays.

With the advent of the Renaissance, a new and vital drama emerged. In England in the 16th cent. the tradition of the interlude, developed by John Heywood and others, blended with that of Latin classic comedy, eventually producing the great Elizabethan comedy, which reached its highest expression in the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Shakespeare, whose comedies ranged from the farcical to the tragicomic, was the master of the romantic comedy, while Jonson, whose drama was strongly influenced by classical tenets, wrote caustic, rich satire.

In 17th-century France, the classical influence was combined with that of the commedia dell'arte in the drama of Molière, one of the greatest comic and satiric writers in the history of the theater. This combination is also present in the plays of the Italian Carlo Goldoni. After a period of suppression during the Puritan Revolution, the English comic drama reemerged with the witty, frequently licentious, consciously artificial comedy of manners of Etherege, Wycherley, Congreve, and others. At the close of the 17th cent., however, such stern reaction had set in against the bawdiness and frivolity of the Restoration stage that English comedy descended into what has become known as sentimental comedy. This drama, which sought more to evoke tears than laughter, had its counterpart in France in the comédie larmoyante.

In England during the later 18th cent. a resurgence of the satirical and witty character comedies was found in the plays of Sheridan. After an almost complete lapse in the early to mid-19th cent., good comedy was again brought to the stage in the comedies of manners by Oscar Wilde and in the comedies of ideas by George Bernard Shaw. In the late 1880s the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov began writing his subtle and delicate comedies of the dying Russian aristocracy.

Twentieth-Century Comedy

The 20th cent. has witnessed a number of distinct trends in comedy. These include the sophisticated and witty comedy of manners, initiated by Oscar Wilde in the late 19th cent. and carried on by Noel Coward, S. N. Behrman, Philip Barry and others; the romantic comic fantasy of such playwrights as James M. Barrie and Jean Giraudoux; and the native Irish comedy of J. M. Synge, Lady Gregory, Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, and Brian Friel.

Also important are the musical comedy, which descends from 18th-century ballad operas and the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and A. S. Sullivan (see musicals) and the slick, satirical, and professional comedy of George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Neil Simon. Strongly contrasting with these sunny styles are the nihilistic, highly unconventional comedy, containing both comic and tragic elements, of dramatists of the theater of the absurd such as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett and the so-called black comedy, often concerning topics like racism, sexual perversion, and murder, of playwrights such as Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet.

Bibliography

See B. N. Schilling, The Comic Spirit (1965); J. W. Krutch, Comedy and Conscience after the Restoration (rev. ed. 1949, repr. 1967); W. Sorell, Facets of Comedy (1972); M. Gurewitz, Comedy (1975); M. Charney, Comedy High and Low (1978); H. Levin, Playboys and Killjoys (1988).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"comedy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"comedy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/comedy

"comedy." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/comedy

Comedy

Comedy

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The social sciences have led the way in the scholarship on humor, looking to social dynamics to explain what people find funny, and why they find it funny. This enquiry began with Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1899), in which the French philosopher Henri Bergson, thinking as a social scientist might, explored how comedy depends upon the rupture of socialized standards of group behavior. A few years later, Sigmund Freud, in Der Witz und sein Beziehung zum Unbewussten (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905), posited that it was the violation of social constructs (functions of the ego and superego) that makes people laugh.

Bergson would go on to cite the worthless act as a central component to laughter in the modern and mechanized world, explaining in Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1911) that humor allows one to distance oneself from the dehumanizing effects of modern, civilized life. Modern scholarship might be said to begin an extension of this logic, looking not only to the essence of humor but also to its social functions. The Czech sociologist Antonin Obrdliks Gallows Humor, a Sociological Phenomenon, which first appeared in the March 1942 edition of the American Journal of Sociology, argued that gallows humor served as relief from the devaluation of human life at the hands of the Nazis.

Since World War II, the social sciences have continued to explore the social functions of humor, often contextualizing these functions by way of well-established theoretical models. In his introductory textbook Humor and Society (1988), Marvin R. Koller addresses the work of Obrdlik directly, examining gallows humor as an example of relief theory. Koller then contextualizes relief theory as one of four macrotheories of humor, the others being ambivalence theory (an embracing of a social construct while simultaneously holding it at arms length), superiority theory (excluding other social groups from human commerce by way of pronouncing ones own their betters), and incongruity theory (reminding us of the perils in thinking we have codified our world more definitively than we have). As any seasoned sociologist will recognize, these theories are familiar approaches drawn from elsewhere in the discipline. Nonetheless, they are profitable means of categorizing and appreciating how humor is more than simply funny.

A second contribution to humor scholarship has come from the willingness of the social sciences to look at how what people find funny can be determined by the groups of which they are a part. The social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, have explored the nature of humor by gender, by medium (e.g., print, television, motion pictures), by region, by professional group, and by race. Surely the most impressive scholarship in this regard has explored the relationship between humor and ethnicity. The early work in this area often employed conflict-aggression interpretations of ethnic humor, depicting ethnic humor as a means of ranking ethnic groups in a social hierarchy. More recent work though has found the phenomena to be flexible, even fluid. Christopher Davies, in The Mirth of Nations (2002), suggests that Polish jokes, for instance, ebb when definable tensions between Poles and other groups are most pronounced. Conversely, Polish jokes flourish when tensions are lowest.

The reach of scholarship in the social sciences is at once broad and deep. The work is yet to be fully synthesized however. Initially spread across psychology, sociology, and anthropology, it is now also found in related fields such as philosophy, communications, folklore, and media studies. Hence, the most exciting scholarship is more often discovered in articles in interdisciplinary journals than in full-length books devoted to a particular social-science discipline.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bechtold, Robert Heilman. 1978. The Ways of the World: Comedy and Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Davies, Christie. 1998. Jokes and Their Relation to Society. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Davies, Christie. 2002. Mirth of Nations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Koller, Marvin R. 1988. Humor and Society: Explorations in the Sociology of Humor. Houston, TX: Cap and Gown Press.

Jay Boyer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Comedy." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Comedy." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/comedy

"Comedy." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/comedy

comedy

com·e·dy / ˈkämədē/ • n. (pl. -dies) professional entertainment consisting of jokes and satirical sketches, intended to make an audience laugh. ∎  a movie, play, or broadcast program intended to make an audience laugh. ∎  the style or genre of such types of entertainment. ∎  the humorous or amusing aspects of something. ∎  a play characterized by its humorous or satirical tone and its depiction of amusing people or incidents, in which the characters ultimately triumph over adversity. ∎  the dramatic genre represented by such plays. Compare with tragedy (sense 2). DERIVATIVES: co·me·dic / kəˈmēdik/ adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"comedy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"comedy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy-1

"comedy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy-1

comedy

comedy One of the two main types of drama. It differs from tragedy in its lightness of style and theme and its tendency to resolve happily. It originated in early Greek fertility rites and, in modern usage, refers not only to a humorous play or film, but also to the growing tradition of stand-up routines. As theatre has developed over the centuries, the once clear division between the two dramatic forms has been blurred, as fusions and a variety of sub-divisions of the two have been developed. See also Aristophanes; Greek drama

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"comedy." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"comedy." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/comedy

"comedy." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/comedy

comedy

comedy professional entertainment consisting of jokes and satirical sketches, intended to make an audience laugh. Recorded from late Middle English (as a genre of drama, also denoting a narrative poem with a happy ending, as in Dante's Divine Comedy), the word comes via Old French and Latin from Greek kōmōidia, from kōmōidos ‘comic poet’, from kōmos ‘revel’ + aoidos ‘singer’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"comedy." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"comedy." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy

"comedy." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy

comedy

comedy †narrative poem with a pleasant ending XIV; †miracle play or interlude with a happy ending XVI; light and amusing play XVII. — (O)F. comédie — L. cōmœdia — Gr. kōmōidíā, f. kōmōidós comic actor, comic poet, f. kômos revel.
So comedian comic writer XVI; comic actor, †stage-player XVII.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"comedy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"comedy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy-2

"comedy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy-2

comedy

comedybaddy, caddie, caddy, daddy, faddy, kabaddi, laddie, paddy •alcalde, Chaldee, Fittipaldi, Vivaldi •Andy, bandy, brandy, candy, dandy, Gandhi, glissandi, handy, jim-dandy, Kandy, Mandy, modus operandi, Nandi, randy, Río Grande, sandhi, sandy, sforzandi, shandy •cadi, cardy, Guardi, Hardie, hardy, jihadi, lardy, Mahdi, mardy, Saadi, samadhi, tardy, Yardie •foolhardy • autostrade •already, Eddie, eddy, Freddie, heady, neddy, oven-ready, ready, reddy, steady, teddy, thready •bendy, effendi, Gassendi, modus vivendi, trendy, Wendy •Monteverdi, Verdi •Adie, Brady, lady, milady, Sadie, shady •landlady • charlady • saleslady •beady, greedy, needy, reedy, seedy, speedy, tweedy, weedy •wieldy •biddy, diddy, giddy, kiddie, middy, midi •higgledy-piggledy •Cindy, Hindi, indie, Indy, Lindy, Rawalpindi, shindy, Sindhi, Sindy, windy •perfidy • raggedy • tragedy • remedy •comedy, tragicomedy •Kennedy • Cassidy • accidie • subsidy •bona fide, Heidi, mala fide, tidy, vide

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"comedy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"comedy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy-0

"comedy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/comedy-0