Comedy Genre: Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:00 Definition & History…
  • 1:30 Characteristics of Comedy
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Comedies are designed to make us laugh - sometimes even until we cry - but what actually defines a 'comedy'? Get a quick reminder in this lesson, where you'll learn the definition and take a closer look at the characteristics of this hilarious literary genre!

Definition and History of the Comedy Genre

When was the last time you had a really good laugh? Maybe you were watching a movie or hanging out with friends. Either way, you were probably observing comedy, which in literary terms is a genre of literature that adopts a humorous or familiar style and depicts laughable characters and situations.

The comedy genre got its start (and its name) in Athens, Greece, during the 5th century BC. Like tragedy, its tear-jerking counterpart, comedy developed from the Athenian celebration dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. This festive aspect of the deity lends comedy its name and some of its more ridiculous attributes, since it's taken from the Greek word komos ('revelry,' or 'merry-making').

The works of the famous Athenian comedian Aristophanes are some the earliest examples of comedic literature still in existence, and he played a tremendous role in shaping some of the characteristics of the genre that we'll see momentarily. Since the time of Shakespeare's comic plays, the literary form has added many more subgenres to its entourage - from burlesque to satire to black and romantic comedies. Despite any differences between these comedic works, they share a number of attributes that identify them as 'comedy.' Let's take a look at those characteristics below.

Characteristics of Comedy

Love and Sex

Many of the festivities honoring Dionysus were meant to ensure fertility, not just of the crops, but of the people, as well. For this reason, the earliest comedies often featured jokes and scenarios that ranged from erotically rude to humorously romantic. Much of the lewder comedy appeared in the 'satyr plays' that divided scenes and often depicted vulgar parodies of other works, which developed into the 'burlesques' of the 16th century.

Even today, we find that sexual tension between characters can frequently lead to sidesplitting situations. Sexuality is now generally more understated in comedy; however, the concept of love is still a prevalent theme in many modern examples of the genre.

Stock Characters and Situations

With the use of common thematic elements came the development of stock characters and situations to portray them. Many of those still in use today were first standardized by Plautus and Terence in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Some of the most prevalent stock characters are those like the old man, the young man, the girl, the servant, and the freeloading friend.

These characters often find themselves in similar situations from one comedy to the next. For instance, a popular dilemma for the girl to encounter is the choice between two young men. Also, the young man might have to fight against the incompetence of his freeloading friend or the improper advances of the old man to win his love's affections. Perhaps one of the most widely used stock combinations is the 'I told you so' moment, when a wisecracking subordinate (servant) of the protagonist flaunts his or her superior intellect over those in charge.

Everyday Speech

In tragedy, there's always a lot of moaning and elevated expressions of fear, panic, and remorse. Comedy, on the other hand, is typically characterized by using plain, everyday speech, and the use of puns or other forms of wordplay is greatly encouraged.

Even though ridiculous or improbable things happen to comedic characters, we're supposed to believe them as average, run-of-the-mill sorts of people. Any time, then, you find one of them perhaps pontificating, or eloquently speaking, on the virtues of - let's say - toilet paper, you know this is the comedy genre's way of poking fun at its tragic older brother.

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