Laughter and Comedy: Laughing For a Long Time

This is an excerpt from my paper ‘How Effective is Laughter and Comedy in Creating an Atmosphere of Positive Peace?

For as long as there has been tragedy there has been laughter. The Ancient Greeks had a strong sense of humour. The comedies by Aristophanes, living around 400 BC, at the time of the war between Athens and Sparta. The comedies stimulated jokes which circulated around both communities. The citizens of Rome were able to express their jokes, even the most autocratic of Roman rulers was hesitant to ban public criticism. A thousand years after the fall of Rome the occidental world appears to not have produced any political humour. 9 During the outbreak of the Peasants Revolt in 1381, one of the most famous slogans was given in a sermon ‘when Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman?’.10

In the 14th century there are signs of rebellion, exhibited by the antics of the knavish fools. Till Eulenspiegel, born in Brunswick, roamed Central Europe and Flanders. A great many people told stories of his comic pranks and these were published in the 16th century.11

Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages dictated what people should think and feel. The technological advance of the printing press spurred the circulation of rebellious pamphlets and broadsheets. The majority of the common people were illiterate and aired their resentment by mouth to mouth jokes about the Catholic establishment. A popular quip in the late 15th century was ‘God is everywhere on earth except Rome – only his deputy is there’. 12

In the early 18th century, two of England’s most famous satirists Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift wrote Robinson Crusoe and Gulliever’s Travels. They saw their main task as attacking reaction, corruption and hypocracy with bitter humour, exerting great influence on public opinion. Defoe published a pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, as a practical way to get rid of non-conformists, as a hoax on the Church.13

In the late 19th century, the social phenomenon of kin based joking relationships was evident. This involved playful behaviour such as joking, teasing, banter, ridicule, insult and horseplay. By the early 20th century attention focussed on joking relationships and the broader social fabric worldwide. By the mid 1950s this behaviour was observed in industrial societies in individuals not related by kin and played out in social settings.

Mohandas Gandhi

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”


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