actors, Comedy, culture, directors, movies

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?