Humor, like all things, develops and changes over time. It grows more complex through its own usage, which is to say, with every joke we contribute to a growing body of material that we may reference for humorous effect, thus allowing for change and novelty. Given the living nature of humor, how has it developed over time?
An Evolutionary Perspective
Have you ever paid attention to the subtle ways that dogs initiate play, maybe the way they will raise their back ends, stretch out their front legs, and lower their heads? Or maybe you’ve experienced this: some dogs are playing near you, which you understand as play rather than fighting unconsciously, so you pay little attention, but then one dog growls in a particular way that startles you into awareness of the dogs and their activity. You suddenly realize that the play has become fighting because this one dog has changed its tone. It is no longer making the playful simulated sounds of aggression but expressing real aggression, and you can tell this despite their being so similar in quality.
I use this dog example because I think it approximates what our earliest uses of humor would have been like; that is, humor likely emerged from these early distinctions between play and aggression. Language, though, has expanded the possibilities of these humorous expressions infinitely.
Origins of Western Comedy
Comedy is the artistic expression of humor, so we may look to its history as a means for understanding the ways in which humor has evolved through the ages.
Comedy, like most Western cultural traditions, began in Ancient Greece. In fact, the West’s first “great” works of theater were comedies written by Aristophanes, such as The Clouds, which satirized the views of the West’s first “great” philosopher, Socrates. Prior to Aristophanes, the Ancient Greeks had a tradition of staging satyr plays, which were apparently quite bawdy and irreverent, featuring much mock drunkenness and a gratuitous amount of phallic props. The works of Aristophanes, then, represent an intellectualization of humor–despite mocking the intellectual —an expansion of its terms and subject matter, as Aristophanes enters a dialogue with the ideas of the father of Western philosophy and science.
Early Modern Humor
“Early Modern” is a term that literary critics use to refer to the same period that everyone else calls the Renaissance. Unable to contain their critical impulses, they dislike the implications of the term “Renaissance”, which literally means “rebirth.” In any case, like most things during this period of history, comedy undergoes a rapid evolution and proliferation in the Early Modern era.
We see the rise of Elizabethan comedy and drama, which often fused comedy and tragedy —see Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and/or Middleton’sThe Revenger’s Tragedy —as well as satirizing social mores and class relations.
This period also witnesses the production of a robust body of political satire by authors such as Miguel de Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Francois Rabelais, and Voltaire. This innovation, I think, is largely attributable to the rise of the novel as a literary medium and Absolute Monarchy as a political system —a system that humor would help to topple.
In the Early Modern period, it seems that comedy and humor expanded in scope and method. With the emergence of the novel, writers could now construct narratives to be told over the course of hundreds of pages in which they methodically expose the follies of contemporary social and political life. One could say that comedy began to apply the same critical attitude to social life as science (nascent at the time) does to the cosmos.
Humor in the 20th Century
The 20th century gives rise to, most notably, surreal and absurdist humor. This kind of humor is marked by its predilection for the illogical, the shocking, and the nonsensical. It is, essentially, a contrary response to those attitudes of science that sought to make a tidy model of the universe that was logical in nature. It is a radical assertion of the irrational. Thus, it can be viewed as a kind of antithesis to the trends that emerged in the Early Modern period, which is to say, instead of making comedy of the irrational tendencies of people, as the Early Moderns did, it reveled in them. In other words, whereas the Early Moderns used rationality to make comedy, the Surrealist made comedy of rationality, exposing it as just another folly of human nature.
21st Century Humor and Conclusion
Today, with the advent of the internet, social media, apps, and streaming services, our lives are saturated with sources of humor. Nearly every aspect of life is fair game for humorists, and nearly everyone is a humorist, as nearly everyone has access to the technology (a smartphone, basically) capable of producing a meme. The meme, like the novel once was, is a new vehicle for the expression of our humor, and, like the novel, it has altered our humor to some degree, or at least modified the way we express and consume it.
Finally, in our present age, with the proliferation of media generally, we find comedy and drama more entangled than ever, as people find increasingly subtle and multivalent ways to express their humor. This is how humor changes, by our reaching out for new means of expression, which fundamentally changes how we interact with the world, opening up new creative possibilities.