IntroductionDoes attempting to define or explain why something is funny ultimately kill the joke? This paradox (or cop-out) has dogged attempts at defining comedy as literature for thousands of years. Many look to ancient Greece for a starting point in defining comedy because it produced some of the earliest existing critical texts that tackled the subject. Yet in Greece, as in subsequent eras, comic expressions were deemed far less important than serious ones. As a result, early writings about the nature of comedy were fewer and far less detailed than those exploring tragedy. Initially, comedy was merely distinguished by the lack of dead bodies at the end of the story. Through time, however, comedy has grown in importance and produced numerous variations and subgenres. Writers as varied as Aristophanes, Dante, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain have composed works classified as "comedy."
- Some scholars believe that comedy evolved from lowbrow musical entertainments, while others maintain it grew out of pagan celebrations of fertility, wine, and sex.
- Satire initially distinguished itself by mocking the aristocracy and institutions like government and religion. Contemporary writers such as Tom Perrotta (author of Election and Little Children) employ satire in their examinations of everyday characters and events.
- Much of the theory about comedy focuses on the element of surprise. Reversing an audience’s expectations creates humor.
- Comedy, both ancient and current, is often built around a central argument that the author is attempting to explore or, in some cases, advocate.
- Stand-up comedy is an important nonliterary variation that creates humor based on a theme or a comedian’s unique perspective.
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