The 15 Most Influential Works Of Comedy Of All Time
From the time the first caveman snuck up on his buddy and roared like a lion, laughter has been an essential part of the human experience, but unlike bodily functions and social misunderstandings and other things in that category (that are coincidentally comedy fodder), this isn’t a “chicken or the egg” scenario. We can actually trace the evolution of comedy from Ancient Sumeria straight through to, regrettably, Ricky Gervais.
The First Joke
The first documented joke dates back to Ancient Sumer, and of course, it’s a fart joke: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Alas, the lost art of lap-sitting means it doesn’t quite land today.
Related: Who Was the First Stand-Up Comic?
The First Satire
The oldest known work of satire is about 4,000 years old and lists comically negative descriptions of various Ancient Egyptian professions. It’s basically about how great being a comedy writer is.
The Invention of Comedy
Formal comedy has its roots in Ancient Greek theater, where Aristophanes was most famous for combining biting political commentary with obscene displays. Yep, dick jokes are a tale as old as time.
The First Improv
Not to invalidate the torture of suffering through your friend’s improv troupe’s performances, but improv comedy goes all the way back to Ancient Greece and was an essential part of the commedia dell’arte movement of Rennaisance Italy. Da Vinci himself almost certainly called out a suggestion.
Related: So You Want to Take an Improv Class?
The First Clown
These days, clowns are more associated with lurking in storm drains to pull you down into the place where we all float, but back when Joseph Grimaldi invented modern clowning, whiteface and all, in the Regency era, a full eighth of people in London watched him perform. Not even the most prestigious HBO drama gets that kind of audience.
The Most Famous Fart
Though fart jokes are literally as old as jokes themselves, the person who really elevated it to an art form was Le Petomane, one of the most famous entertainers in the world at the turn of the 20th century. He didn’t actually fart so much as draw enormous amounts of air into his colon and then elegantly expel it, but his shows were so hilarious that nurses had to be stationed in the audience to attend to fainting corset-wearers.
The First News Show Parody
Weekend Update and The Daily Show might have perfected the form, but parody news goes back to the 1930s, when MGM produced shorts that ran between movie showings that contained news footage accompanied by “mocking, deadpan narration.” If you’re looking for someone to blame Jimmy Fallon on, start there.
The First Standup Comedian
The idea of telling jokes to a group of people might seem timeless, but it only dates back about 200 years, to a newspaper columnist named Artemus Ward who realized minstrel and circus performers were getting big laughs reading his columns aloud. He decided to book himself on the lecture circuit and instead did a deadpan impression of an incompetent lecturer. It turns out Andy Kaufman might not only be still alive but immortal.
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The First Comedy Movie
The first comedy movie was an 1895 silent short depicting a gardener chasing and spanking a boy after being tricked into spraying himself in the face with his hose, which is probably much less symbolic than it sounds. It was called L'Arroseur Arrosé, which translates to The Sprinkler Watered, proving comedy screenwriters have always been suckers for puns.
The First Guy to Slip on a Banana Peel
Slipping on a banana peel really did used to be a serious danger back before hot dogs were invented and thus bananas were a popular street food, inspiring vaudeville comedian “Sliding” Billy Watson to make it part of his act in the early 1900s. Silent film stars like Buster Keaton borrowed the gag, and the rest is squishy history.
The First Sitcom
The first sitcom was the BBC’s Pinwright’s Progress, about the proprietor of the world’s smallest “multiple” store (it’s a British thing) and the wacky hijinks therein, from elderly deaf employees to fugitive Santa Clauses. It’s definitely ripe for a reboot.
The First Sketch Comedy
Believe it or not, Saturday Night Live didn’t invent sketch comedy. That honor goes to The Milton Berle Show, initially known as Texaco Star Theater and hosted by the comedian then known for his drag routine and now mostly known for his remarkably huge schlong. He was basically the Pete Davidson of his day.
The First Laugh Track
The laugh track, like sketch comedy, made its debut on radio, but the first TV show to feature a laugh track was The Hank McCune Show, which must not have been very funny because sound engineer Charley Douglass mostly used audience reactions from The Red Skelton Show. As we all suspect, it was created so viewers of poorly written shows would know which parts were jokes.
The First Comedian Website
Of course, Cracked has been America’s only humor site since 1958, but Rodney Dangerfield, of all people, became the first famous comedian to launch their own website all the way back in 1995. This puts him in the uncomfortable position of no longer being able to claim he gets no respect.
The First Comedy Podcast
It’s hard to say which comedy podcast was the first because any moron with a microphone can make one that only his mom listens to, but The Ricky Gervais Show technically existed before podcasting. It began as a radio show in 1997 before the TV star transitioned in 2005 to the pod, which is basically just the modern version of entertainment radio, which is where all TV comedy comes from. It’s a circle of comedy life.
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