The Ancient Greeks originally invented Stand Up Comedy. Historians believe it first appeared at wedding feasts where the Father would tell tales of his Son’s misfortunes and shortcomings, in a ceremonial bid to dissuade the bride from marrying him. The aim of this ritual was for the bride to be won over by the father, rather than the son. This ritual was unfortunately more successful than not, and quickly disappeared as a custom. However the Greeks were still fond of this new found idea of laughter from prepared speech, and soon many public addresses were taking a humorous bent. From street vendor to philosopher, teacher to athlete, all were trying to come up with zingy one-liners. This trend continued to spread throughout the ages. The Romans were quick to catch onto the Greek way with wacky words, and would often use it as a propaganda device when establishing the Empire in new lands. A favourite satirical joke of the time went like so-
“ The Roman Empire”
“The Roman Empire who?”
“The Roman Empire to which your mother told you to never open the door too.”
Perhaps it has lost some of its context and cultural relevance in the translation, but you can recognise the form.
Stand Up Comedy continued to evolve over time. Jesus Christ himself was an early fan, utilising warm up act comedians before his biggest gig, the Sermon on the Mount. It is believed the twelve disciples were also required to have a tight five ready at all times, as part of their contracts.
During medieval times, Stand Up went professional, with Jesters being employed full time for the King’s entertainment. Often these jesters would suffer mental, physical, social and sexual dysfunctions, setting the archetype for the modern comedian.
Comedy was forced underground for hundreds of years by the ruling powers and aristocracy, as they saw it the domain of the gypsy and working class man. It however thrived in the jails and impoverished slums. It was here that the art of embellished stories and song, gave birth to an autobiographical comedy. Convicts also noted certain accents were better suited to the form than others. Popular at the time were Irish, Scottish, English, Dutch, and Norwegian. All but the Norwegian tongue, hold their powers to this day.
Eventually the form broke free of the underground. It had a social resurgence when followers started gathering in forest clearings and listening to performers sitting in branches of a large pine trees, doing their bits.
An Irishman by the name of Delman O’ Shannesy was believed to be the first to perform in the standing up posture. The story goes that, drunk on his wife’s homemade whisky liqueur, he refused to leave the vicinity of his fireplace, and demanded that the audience come to his living room. It was in that living room that over 36 people watched as O’Shannesy ripped through some of the most groundbreaking, Bailey’s fuelled, gags History has seen. To this day, Irish comics still celebrate O’Shannesy’s Birthday, which happens to also be New Years Eve. Convenient, but also confusing.
Fast forward to the modern world. A world of knowledge, technology and globalisation. Charlie Chaplin was innovative in taking comedy to the screen, where it has built a thriving home. A sad by-product being that Chaplin was an influence on both Adolf Hitler and the Marx Brothers, responsible for the death of over six million between them.
In the last 50 years Stand Up has come further than it has in all the year preceding it. In that time we have seen the wheel go full circle and return to the ancient Greek and Roman roots with the boom of ‘Wog’ Comedy in the 80’s and ‘90’s’. It could be argued that in this post ethnic, observational era, we are embarking on a new wave. A Neo-Comedy generation. What does it hold? Performances in outer space? A return to sitting down? Perhaps no punchlines, just amusing set-ups. The future is in your hands…have you washed them?