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Fact file: The history of comedy

March 28, 2009

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The history of comedy

The word 'comedy' is derived from a Greek word meaning celebration or singing. The adjective 'comic' in modern usage is generally confined to the sense of 'laughter-provoking'. The word 'comedy' came into modern usage through the Latin 'comoedia' and Italian 'commedia' and has, over time, passed through various shades of meaning.

Greeks and Romans confined 'comedy' to descriptions of stage-plays with happy endings. In the Middle Ages, the term expanded to include narrative poems with happy endings and a lighter tone. As time progressed, the word came more and more to be associated with any sort of performance intended to cause laughter.

The term later became synonymous with satire, and later, humour. After Aristotle's Poetics was translated into Latin in the 12th century, the term 'comedy' gained a more general meaning in medieval literature.

Aristophanes, a dramatist of ancient Greece, wrote 40 comedies, 11 of which survive today and are still being performed. In ancient Greece, comedy seems to have originated in rude and offensive songs or performances regarding various festivals or gatherings, or also in making fun at other people or stereotypes. This is said to be the beginning of comedy.

Comedy is all about laughter and Thomas Hobbes speaks of laughter as a “sudden glory”. Modern investigators have paid much attention to the origin, both of laughter and of smiling, as well as the development of the 'play instinct' and its emotional expression.

George Meredith, in his 1897 classic Essay on Comedy, said, “One excellent test of the civilisation of a country... I take to be the flourishing of the comic idea and comedy; and the test of true comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.”

Laughter is also said to be the cure for sickness. Studies show that people who laugh more often, fall sick less.