From the sarcasm of Vikings to twenty-first century ‘vines’, humour has been an integral part of our cultural history. It is a universal phenomenon, though it still differs between various societies. Current humour in comedy is typically seen as a way to pass time and relax. However, in the past it was seen as vital in society.
Prescriptions today might require a trip to the pharmacy but in Ancient Greece, patients were prescribed visits to the Hall of Comedians. Humour was seen as healing, not only by ancient Greeks but by Native Americans who held their tribe clowns in high regard. Even Australian Aboriginals, isolated for 35,000 years, were observed to have humorous conversations, according to pioneers during their first contact. Comedy has been widely documented throughout history and was seen by many as crucial in human survival.
Experts recognise laughter as beneficial by stimulating the heart, lowering blood pressure, and relieving stress. From the 14th to the 17th centuries, humour was used to aid recovery from various ailments, illnesses, and diseases. The 14th century saw laughter used in surgery recovery, whereas the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries focused on curing melancholy, depression and stimulating tension release through laughter.
Comedy has reached the public over time via a variety of different means. The Romans, alongside the Greeks, favoured theatre. They reworked Greek originals to create comedic dramas often involving eavesdropping and the resulting complications. Plautus, for example, was a renowned playwright in 3rd century BC who wrote Miles Gloriosus (“the Boastful Soldier”). The focus on theatre productions was prevalent for a long time, but the 1960s saw a transformation of this with the introduction of television sitcoms as televisions became more readily available to the public than ever before.
For over half a century, the platform for comedy has been TV shows and films. British humour in the 20th century tended towards slapstick based on deliberately clumsy, embarrassing actions – with productions such as Monty Python (1969-83). Comedy in Britain has transformed in more recent years to black humour – typically serious or taboo topics treated humorously – and sarcasm. Notably, British humour also includes satires (ridiculing authorities), such as the BBC show, ‘Yes Minister’ (1980-88), and absurdity shows, such as ‘Big Train’ (1998-2002).