Court Jesters to Jimmy Carr: A Brief History of Comedians
But is that really all it takes to be classed as a comedian? American actor and comedian, Ed Wynn once said: “A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny”. Perhaps this is a simplistic take on a craft that so few can earn a living from, and a trade that only a handful have significantly mastered. So, where can we trace this jovial job back to, and how has this fine art developed over time, to where it is now considered a sought-after profession in a competitive industry?
Comedic performances themselves can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece. The likes of Aristophanes’ once paved the way, followed by Plautus in Ancient Rome. But the notion of a ‘comedian’ as we understand it only began to emerge with the appearance of court jesters or minstrels, a capricious form of comedy first recorded in the 1300s.
These brightly-shod creatures, in jingling cloth hats, could become members of a monarch’s or nobleman’s household during the Medieval period, permanently employed to entertain the lord and his guests. Their repertoire would be broad, anything from magic tricks, to telling stories, jokes and singing, or, as Henry II demanded of his fool, Roland le Pettour, to “leap, whistle and fart” every year at Christmas.
Although whimsical characters, their role was more than that of pure amusement and the material for their punchlines was never entirely harmless. They were the original “truth-tellers”, often mocking the pomp and power of the court, trivialising the very audience they came to entertain. Frequently granted “comic dispensation”, a “Freedom from all Constraint”, that’s not to say they couldn’t overstep the mark. King James VI of Scotland favoured a jester called Archibald Armstrong, who’s wit and malice brought him great celebrity. However, success went to his head and his risky interplay of humour and insult fell flat with the archbishop, who got sick of being abused and ordered Archy “to have his coat pulled over his head and be discharged the king’s service and banished the king’s court.” Ejected from his cosy position, books of Archy’s jests nevertheless sold like hotcakes on London’s streets, illustrating the cult-like status proponents of humour can achieve, politically dissident or otherwise. Something we still see in much of comedy today.
Charles I still retained these infamous jokers, one of whom even fought in the Royalist army, but their roles were not reinstated at the start of the Restoration period in the 1660s. Comedians were relegated to the theatrical sphere, though at the latter end of Charles II’s reign there was a distinct shift towards political drama, as base humour became unfashionable. Thus, perhaps it’s best to take a peek at our neighbours across the pond, where American vaudeville brought a second coming for the craft.
Ah, vaudeville! That cavalcade of strongmen, singing ducks, bearded ladies and even a cocaine-swilling dentist! Surely a natural place for comedy in its absurdist form to thrive. First becoming mainstream entertainment some 200 years after the court jester retired his act, vaudeville showed that comedy could work on large stages. Often referred to as “the heart of American Show business”, vaudeville created a performance bill that mixed the low brow with the highbrow, generating the perfect space for a comedian to cut his teeth. Notable performers who began their careers on these stages include George Burns, Eddie Cantor and, of course, the late, great Bob Hope. This was classic family fun where, like their predecessors, these comedians would pile in childish capers wily nily with adult humour, intended to appeal to audiences of all ages.
Whilst comedy was a staple of every vaudeville bill, it was most likely to be delivered by comedy ‘teams’ (think The Rat Pack) who interacted with one another rather than the viewers. But a few performers, such as Frank Fay, became known for their stand alone, improvised routines whilst also serving as emcees. This solo style was honed over time and adopted by a host of new performers who were able to fuse commercial comedy in live arenas with TV appearances, creating a more marketable, recognisable brand of comedy. So it was that stand-up began to take the stage in the 1960s, and the subject matter of routines became more personal. The role of stand-up has become a stepping stone for fledgling funnymen, allowing them to practice new material, potentially get discovered and handle heckling that challenges their ability to comeback.
Tropes evident in the early developmental stages of Vaudeville continue today. Comedy is constantly being revisited, with each comedian keen to define his own trademarks. Think of the ground-breaking, sometimes controversial work of comedians Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr or Ricky Gervais, who’s routines have been known to offend and alienate some viewers, just as jesters did centuries before. Surely the most curious thing about comedy is its ability to hurt, when its job is to amuse. Perhaps behind the mask of mirth is a clue to humanity’s great peculiarity: often our chief merriment comes in the mockery of others. As Shakespeare shrewdly said, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”