Peter Jones

It’s hard to improve on classical comedy


Ian Hislop’s genial radio series on the earliest English jokes got off to an odd start since the joke in question – Pope Gregory’s description of the Angli being more like Angeli – was a Latin one. Romans had much to say about humour, most of it cribbed from ancient Greeks.

Cicero saw jokes as an important oratorical weapon: they win approval, mock an opponent, relieve tedium and show the orator to be a man of accomplishment and taste – though he warned against laughs for their own sake. Their main sources were diction, situations, the ridiculous (ugliness and deformity) and the unexpected. Among the most effective form of verbal witticisms he identified e.g. ambiguity, plays on words and well-known sayings, allegory, irony, incongruity, caricature and understatement.

All these are well exemplified in comedy, our earliest examples of Roman literature (from c. 200 bc), which drew heavily on Greek models, though comedy being a different animal from political oratory the humour was less refined. The jokes, puns and wordplay, complete with song and dance, come thick and fast in the ludicrous situations that Plautus (d. 182 bc) constructs in comedies. These involve chaos and misunderstanding, irony, suspense and surprise as the household’s tricky slave – the part Frankie Howerd made his own – gives a hand to his helpless young master in winning out against the wishes of his stern but foolish, easily deceived old father, usually in matters of love (to which the father is often as prone as the son); and all made more complex still by the pimps, slave dealers and randy soldiers that always emerge in such situations – even better when twins are involved. That said, the tone of the comedies is lighthearted, gratifying the audience’s sense of superiority, never malicious. Humour has been endlessly theorised, but the ancient analysis seems to have covered most of the means by which laughs are generated. Has the modern world come up with any genuinely new ways to make people laugh, rather than just different subjects to laugh about?