The History of Comedy


Comedy is a generational concept and an evolutionary process that is ever-changing and yet, slapstick is still slapstick. Comedy, whether in film, the radio, or television depends on “pushing the envelope”. In the beginning of film, slapstick and zany situations were all that was needed to make people laugh. Here’s why Buster Keaton was considered a king of comedy during the silent era of film.

Federal Communications Commission regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), after many changes to its name since its start in 1929, began as a trade association of movie companies establishing a code of conduct for actors on and off the screen. This meant no passionate scenes. Keep your tongue in your mouth. No swearing or perverted sex, which meant only heterosexual. Keep those glams and mams covered.  No adultery or sympathetic treatment of crimes and their villains. The Great Depression of the early 1930s increased pressure on studios to make films that would draw the largest possible audiences, even if it meant taking their chances with local censorship boards by disobeying the code. Keeping with a WASP tradition, comedy was safe as long it was slapstick because women were “delicate” and children morally pure. In the 1930s, producers were fined thousands of dollars if they didn’t follow the ethical code of behavior set forth by the Production Code Administration.

The Philadelphia Story is a fine example of comedy that is devoid of objectionable content. The central conflict of this love-triange is the intermingling of social classes. When worlds collide, the lady chooses her former husband, validating the sanctity of marriage while the middle and upper classes are segregated. Full of puns and fast-paced witticisms in the style of Oscar Wilde, The Philadelphia Story is funny because the comedic timing is energetic and delivered effortlessly with witty sparring. The jokes bounce off of three great actors: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.

Billy Wilder had a slew of comedies during his prolific career but probably his most famous was Some Like It Hot considered by AFI as the number one comedy in film. One way to get a laugh is to shock an audience with the unexpected like gender reversals. Men in the 30s-60s wore suits and hats and norms were clearly defined. To see a man in a dress with makeup was shocking and you laughed. On 50s television, Milton Beryl “Uncle Milty”, Red Skelton, and Jerry Lewis made a fortune acting like a clown or by dressing in drag. In film, this clownish, gender reversal worked in the 70s-90s with examples such as Tootsie, The Rocky Horror Picture Story, and Mrs. Doubtfire. 

Are you a John Waters fan? Which version did you like best? The 1988 version Hairspray starring Divine and Blondie or the 2007 version with John Travolta and Christopher Walken?

In the 60s, if a comedian swore on the radio, they would be jailed for obscenities. This was still the case in the early 1970s. The Moral Majority was under attack by the Counter Culture in America as well as in the United Kingdom. Nowhere was this more evident than in the revolutionary comic routine performed by George Carlin. His “7 Dirty Words” was not only hilarious, it questioned freedom of speech rights and condemnation of censorship.  Here it is for you if you’ve never seen it. If you don’t like profanity then skip this video and be comforted he was arrested for it. OR,

Try this great article by Timothy Bella from The Atlantic instead which tells you the history behind the comedy routine that became a pop-culture milestone.

Mel Brooks and Peter Sellers both used slapstick and puns and costumes and pushed the envelope with satire. Poking fun at the paranoid climate during the Cold War, Peter Sellers shows off his brilliance by becoming four characters in Kubrick’s classic. It’s a perfect comedy.

I love Mel Brooks. Puns galore with parody. It’s what I crave in a comedy. Gene Wilder is golden in my book and my favorite comedian.  Surely, by now you’ve seen Young Frankenstein?


Ever notice that comedies from the 1980s and 90s rated R would pass for PG-13 today? A new wave of comedians always try to push the envelope. Are we getting too desensitized? Where does the envelope go if there’s nothing left to “shock”? Have you ever wondered what comedy will be like twenty years from now?

What I really want to know is what makes you laugh. What’s your favorite comedy in film?

41 thoughts on “The History of Comedy

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  1. Another brilliant post, Cindy. For me, I think my favourite comedy of all-time would probably be Dumb and Dumber. It never, ever fails to make me laugh. That said, I have a soft spot for many of the entries mentioned here, too. 🙂


      1. I LOVED Tropic Thunder. I was surprised by how much it completely tickled me. Yes, I love stupid comedies. I’d be a fan of the darker kinds of comedy too, but stupid ones are perfect for when you want a totally brainless laugh.


        1. I laughed in the beginning when Toby is a monk fondling the beads to Jack Black in white tighty-whities to “Who am I?” speech by Downey Jr., Matthew M’s ring tone to Cruise dancing as Les Grossmann. All too funny. 🙂
          I agree, dark comedies make me laugh–love Sideways, In Bruges, and Dogma….


  2. Off the top of my head:
    Monty Python and the Holy Grail
    There’s Something about Mary
    Slap Shot
    Dr. Strangelove
    Young Frankenstein
    Some Like It Hot
    His Girl Friday
    The Gazebo
    Blazing Saddles
    Tropical Thunder
    Flirting with Disaster


    1. Great! We share a similar list, then, yes?
      I really like Ben Stiller. How did I miss ‘Flirting with Disaster’? Hhmm. It’s good, you say? Maybe I should rent it. Thanks, Richard for commenting 🙂


  3. 4 come to mind immediately:

    1. Clueless
    2. Bowfinger
    3. Zoolander. speaking of stupid comedy–it is stupid and he is stupid! Orange Mocha Frappocino!
    4. Super Bad. Judd Apatow and his gang and McLovin

    So do you consider these stupid, physical or intelligent or comedies?

    Runners up: Stranger Than Fiction, Dogma and 40-year Old Virgin


    1. I forgot Dogma on my list. That’s dark and intelligent. 40 YOV was very funny upon first viewing. Very stupid. I missed Super Bad. You like stupid comedies 😉 Clueless is very stupid but a modern remake of Jane Austin’s ‘Pride and Predudice’ so it gets a few points of respectability in my book.


  4. The oldies were obviously the best since you see the themes repeated in newer TV sit-coms and movies. The oldest comedians still had the imagination. How many times has vaudeville been copied in skits, say SLN for example? I dare not count – just laugh – 😆 😉


          1. Jerry Lewis was great in Scorsese’s ‘King of Comedy’. Otherwise, I can’t recall any serious films. Just silly slapstick for which I can’t say I go ga-ga about.


  5. Just impossible to select, everyone will have their own personal list, Airplane is pretty high up for me though. And Something about Mary, and Young Frank.. and,and, and, some great comedy’s here. IMO Jerry Lewis was in one very good comedy only he was not the star Lee Evans (Something about Mary) was, Funny Bones from the mid-90s


  6. You’ve a number of favorites here, Cindy. Off the top of my head:
    Young Frankenstein
    Blazing Saddles
    Some Like It Hot
    Dr. Strangelove
    The Princess Bride
    His Girl Friday
    Raising Arizona
    Galaxy Quest
    A Fish Called Wanda

    I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, though. Fine article. 🙂


    1. Hi Michael 🙂 I’m glad you shared and am happy we share similar tastes when it comes to comedies. The Princess Bride. Good call. It’s ‘inconceivable’ I would leave that one out. 😉


  7. I love your posts, Cindy. You’ve mentioned so many of my favorite movies. Here’s a silly one for you: ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ – pretty funny stuff. Always liked ‘The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.’ More recently, I liked Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn in ‘The House Sitter’ – there’s a bit with Steve Martin singing an Irish ditty that makes me giggle. And there’s ‘Private Benjamin,’ of course.

    ‘The Philadelphia Story’ is one of my all time favorites. So is ‘Monkey Business.’

    ‘Young Frankenstein’ – ah, Peter Boyle as the monster dancing to ‘Putting on the Ritz’ – classic!

    The bit about George Carlin made me smile. George Carlin always made me smile. He used to do a bit as ‘The Hippy Dippy Weatherman’ years ago that was funny.

    Thanks for such an entertaining post!


    1. No, thank you, Kate, for such warm comments, you brightened my day 🙂
      I thought ‘Private Benjamin’ funny–Goldie Hawn, she was such a dingbat–a Cameron Diaz of her generation. I didn’t mention any Steve Martin. I didn’t care The Jerk (too stupid) and he made a number of comedies for which one could isolate a scene and it was magic. Yes to Monkey Business and Arsenic and Old Lace. I loved how versatile Cary Grant was. He was a smooth operator 😉
      Thanks again, Kate 🙂


      1. Regarding Cary Grant, I think what especially worked so well for him is that his great comedic timing was so unexpected in light of his good looks and urbanity. I really liked him a lot – smooth and debonair, or put-upon and overwhelmed in a humorous way.



  8. Great topic Cindy! Comedy is quite subjective and also cultural. I used to like a lot of slapstick comedies as my mom brought back a lot of Laurel & Hardy movies from her travels, but yet for some reason I don’t really care for the Three Stooges.

    “Ever notice that comedies from the 1980s and 90s rated R would pass for PG-13 today?” Yep, it’s too bad that there are so many foul-mouthed and crude *comedies* out there that I don’t find funny at all. My kind of comedy is those that aren’t foul, vulgar or mean-spirited. I don’t mind slapstick, I mean Top Secret! and those Naked Gun movies are such a hoot. Oh and I quite like British humor too, like Mr. Bean and Richard Curtis’ movies 🙂


    1. Hi Ruth. You are the first to mention Mr. Bean and I’m glad you did. Have you ever seen the slapstick, PG-13, comedy ‘Rat Race’? I bet you might fancy that one. It has John Cleese and Mr. Bean and quite a funny ensemble cast. It’s ridiculous of course, but quite a lot of laughing going on, especially with Seth Green and his moronic brother.


      1. Oh yes I have seen that. It’s hilarious! I do enjoy Bean in his TV series too, and his brief appearances in Love, Actually and Four Weddings & A Funeral, both by Richard Curtis.

        Speaking of British comedies, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m so hooked on watching Toby in BBC’s Vexed. It’s so deliberately un-PC and goofy, it pokes fun at all the serious forensic/cop shows like CSI that take themselves so seriously.


  9. Great essay, Cindy. So many movies I haven’t seen …

    My favorite comedy, it won’t surprise you if you read my review of it, has to be Dr. Strangelove. After that … I don’t know. Pineapple Express is pretty brilliant, and so is Bridesmaids, but I wouldn’t call either a favorite, probably because my preferences tend to rest firmly in favor of satire over slapstick.

    What about you? What’s your favorite?


    1. Thanks for asking! Hmmm. I’ve seen Young Frankenstein more than any other comedy. Tropic Thunder made me howl with laughter. In Bruges is an excellent dark comedy. Lots of classics are charming. Dr. Strangeglove is perfect. Can I decide on one? It’s lame, but I can’t!


    1. I do! Nothing like British Humor. It’s daffy and I laugh. Probably because of their accents and they have that reputation for keeping a “stiff upper lip” and “stay calm and carry on” mentality, to see them acting ridiculous is funny.


  10. Hi, Cindy;

    Excellent presentation!

    Comedy is universal. The Brits do it differently. More literal and verbal. Often less physical. Benny Hill played both sides brilliantly as as a loveable buffoon. In the U.S. Keaton and Harold Lloyd reign supreme in early classics. Creating a later fertile field for Howard Hawks directing Carey Grant and Katherine Hepburn offering strict competition for William Powell and Myrna Loy. While setting the tenet, that if you can do comedy. You can do anything. As realized later by Jackie Gleason, Jack Lemmon, Bill Murray and Steve Martin (Who should never have strayed from drama after working with David Mamet in ‘The Spanish Prisoner’). Then presenting the flip side with George C. Scott, Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges.

    While humor and comedy presently is looser, more sloppy, often raunchy and less polished for a younger audience.


    1. Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for stopping by 🙂
      Hope you visit my tribute I just posted to Bill Murray. I haven’t seen ‘The Spanish Prisoner’, thanks for the head’s up. Steve is a funny man. I think my favorite of his ‘Roxanne'(1987). Many dimensions including tenderness, smarts, funny, coy–Steve did a marvelous job.


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