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What made a 5th century Athenian laugh? by Megan Bowler

We tend to think of laughter as irrational and nonsensical – an instantaneous reaction to something funny, which is no longer funny the moment we overanalyse it! Trying to explain exactly why you laughed at something five minutes ago is often near-impossible, so you might well be wondering what made an Athenian laugh and if there is any point in re-imagining laughs, chuckles and giggles from thousands of years ago. However, thinking about ancient humour can provide useful insights into changing social attitudes. The objects and situations that people are likely to consider appropriate or offensive to laugh at can be especially revealing: we can learn which ‘boundaries’ of humour are specific to a particular culture and era, and in contrast, whether some things are funny in a more universal sense.

This idea of comedy generating laughter by playing on ‘boundaries’, but also having ‘lines’ which should not be crossed, is encapsulated by Peter McGraw’s theory: that humour derives from a kind of “benign violation” of social rules and hierarchies, whether these are cultural taboos or verbal expectations (for instance, defying where we anticipate a sentence is heading or surprising us with wordplay). Accordingly, humour occupies a middle ground of being transgressive but ultimately harmless: jokes stop being funny when they become too tame or too threatening. Investigating historical humour, then, requires us to think about how this middle ground might have had significant similarities and differences to that of what, for instance, the comedy we might see shown on television today in the UK, and to consider the reasons behind what has changed and stayed the same.

This ‘middle ground’ of course varies for individuals – we all have our own personal ideas of what is funny as opposed to too offensive, too childish or too morbid, in accordance with our personal beliefs, experiences and tastes. However, these boundaries are also considerably informed by cultural norms, particularly when we are in a group setting such as an audience. Scientific research indicates that collective laughter acts as a form of social bonding as well as a reaction to humour – laughter can often generate a collective community identity, reinforcing a sense of insiders and outsiders. We can see this in the way that modern observational and situational comedy often creates an ‘in-joke’ effect, drawing on funny details from shared experiences. The same is often true in the ancient Athenian genre of ‘Old Comedy’ – comic plays written for performance at dramatic festivals in the city often make niche references to recent events and very specific parodies of prominent individuals, such as politicians, poets and intellectuals that would have been familiar to an audience of (at least primarily) male citizens. We can identify running jokes, and also humour directed particularly at the audience’s own experiences at the time of watching. A scene in Birds, by the comic poet Aristophanes, imagines the advantages of humans having wings and deploys the fact that the audience would have previously sat through performances of tragedies:

Let’s say you’re watching some tragic play, and you were hungry and fed up with the choruses and tragedians. Well, with wings you’d fly out of here, go home and have dinner - and when you were full, you’d fly back down here to see us again. (Aristophanes, Birds 786-9)

We might like to think of the ancient Athenians as highbrow, and expect their sense of humour to be deeply intellectual - but this passage continues into silly toilet humour:

Some Patrocleides, needing a crap, would not have to let it out all over his cloak – he would simply have flown off in a hurry, let out a fart, recovered his breath and flown back again! (Aristophanes, Birds 790-2)

When reading Aristophanes’ surviving plays, written in the late 5th century BC, it is striking that some of his jokes and comic scenarios are still funny. Certainly, it is a rather magical feeling to laugh at something that other humans once laughed at thousands of years ago. For instance, performances of Lysistrata, in which the heroine leads Athenian and Spartan women in a sex-strike to urge the men to stop their war, have proved a big hit with 21st-century audiences. Packed with innuendoes, slapstick farce, humiliated men, and even exaggerated regional accents, Lysistrata has clear potential for prompting laughs today. The sustained mockery and exaggerated caricatures of leaders and policy decisions that characterise ‘Old Comedy’ also have much in common with modern political satire – Aristophanes is particularly famous for lampooning Cleon, a populist leader of his day. However, it is also unsurprising that many ancient Greek jokes, given they were written for an audience of another time and place, simply aren’t very funny to us! We might find some ancient humour distasteful by modern standards, such as jokes involving misogyny or the neglect of children. Some might also have lost their comic effect outside of their original context, such as those about individuals we no longer know anything about. Translation complicates things further – puns and double-meanings which work in the Greek original are often very difficult to recapture in English.

The dramatic festivals at which these comic plays were performed were also competitions – a comic poet like Aristophanes needed to offer novelty in the jokes and comic scenarios he provided, and undermine his opponents’ efforts as poor attempts to copy his material, or as boring and clichéd. At the start of Frogs (lines 1-30), for instance, the character Dionysus tells his slave Xanthias to stop making silly double-entendres about needing the toilet because these are the sort of trashy, outdated jokes that Ameipsias, Lycis and Phrynicus (Aristophanes’ rivals) make. Aristophanes also draws on the seemingly modern idea that good comedy is provocative, and says he dares to ridicule what other comic poets wouldn’t – this purported drive especially characterizes his redoubled satire of Cleon in Knights after he condemned his play Babylonians the previous year.

So in both ancient and modern times, the construction of laughter itself as naturally inclined to challenge boundaries and question authority results not only in ‘comic license’ being politically charged but also in artistic quality and inventiveness being at stake, given that comic material can lose its salient and subversive quality if it becomes stale and commonplace. For instance, stand-up comedians today might mock other comedians who claim to have been accused by ‘the political correctness police’ of going ‘too far’ as merely using shock-value as a gimmick to make up for a lack of skill, or scorn the unoriginality of mainstream modern comedy in contrast to their own creativity. Something similar is going on in this extract from Aristophanes’ Clouds – from the parabasis, the moment where the leader of the chorus steps out to address the audience directly and often provides a mouthpiece for the poet to talk about his comic approach:

I don’t try to cheat you by bringing out the same stuff two or three times, but I cleverly invent new themes – none of them alike and all of them witty. I struck Cleon right in the belly when he was getting too big for his boots, but I had the decency not to trample on him when he was down. But these other poets, when Hyperbolus (another politician) gave them a chance once, are always kicking the poor guy and his mother. First of all Eupolis brought out his ‘Maricas’, rubbish poet, which was just a rubbish version of my ‘Knights’ – he’d added a drunk old woman so she could dance the cordax (a salacious dance), which Phyrnichus (another comic poet) did ages ago … now all the others are set on attacking Hyperbolus, and copying my comparison of the eels! Whoever laughs at those sort of jokes, I hope they get no pleasure out of mine – but if you enjoy me and my inventions, in times to come you’ll look like you have good taste. (Aristophanes, Clouds 546-62)

Modern and ancient humorists are likely to have different concerns when they contrast their own jokes with those who ‘cross the line’ or use outdated stereotypes (in part because those ‘lines’ are different in these contrasting societies). But the approach of interacting with the expectations of what should or should not be found ‘funny’, and the effect achieved, has much in common – they are defining themselves in opposition to the kind of cheap laughs that they insist their audience deserve better than, and promising to offer something rather more clever and original.

Overall, then, there is a sense in which ancient Athenians would have laughed about some of the same things as us – demonstrated by the fact that some of their jokes are still funny, and comic poets used recognisable techniques to present their efforts as most worthy of laughs. We still love laughing at politicians and celebrities, and the ancient Athenians seemed to deploy puns and innuendoes in much the same way as us; they also distinguished between lowbrow humour and more sophisticated jokes. However, ancient Greek humour, in general, can sometimes appear cruel by modern standards – jokes in plays and images on comic vases openly mocked death, suffering, ugliness and poverty in ways that would overstep the ‘benign violation’ zone in our more empathy-promoting culture, in which humour tends to be more self-deprecating. Likewise, some of the more serious insults on an Athenian comic stage – such as calling someone a ‘shield-thrower’ (i.e. cowardly), or saying their mother was a market-seller – lose much of their significance when removed from Athens’ specific context and ‘honour-shame’ culture.

However, there are also many significant gaps in our knowledge of ancient Athenian laughter. For a start, we don’t know which jokes in these comic plays once raised laughs from their audiences and which fell flat; we are also limited to the written texts, but the humour in the original performances would have been aided by visuals, props and costumes. Much of comic literature was also designed for male reception in a specific dramatic context, and it is difficult to assess the ways in which humour might have diverged across social groupings and regions. This topic raises many more fascinating questions (for instance, what might social circles of freeborn women or slaves laughed about together?), which are even more difficult to answer.

ancient greek theatre laughter
What made a 5th century Athenian Laugh?

So there we have it, what made an Athenian laugh!

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