Puns and put-downs have been part of comedy history back to ancient times. Although the ancient Greeks distinguished between comedy and tragedy, to them comedy referred to a theatrical performance that ended happily, without serious death or dismemberment. Since then, over the ages, comedy has come to mean more than the absence of tragedy: it describes something humorous, causing audiences to be amused and laugh.
Comedy and Tragedy: the Masks of Ancient Greece
Historically, comedy has taken many forms, but emerged from live performances. It began with rough demonstrations and depended on physical surprises. Clowns tumbled and attacked each other merrily in circuses and comics threw pies in each other’s faces, in front of crowds of people who laughed and shouted. This kind of comedy carried over into silent film with visions of comics riding on the outside of train wheels, hanging from oversized public clocks well above street level, or riding in cars that disappeared into giant sink holes.
Visual comedy, because it lacked language, couldn’t be personally nasty or insulting. Astonishing and surprising stunts simply made people laugh. As a result, when stunts and rough-house weren’t funny, nobody felt insulted.
Language Brought Puns and Put-Downs into Comedy
Theater and literature have a long history. Language communicates thoughts, emotions, philosophy as well as wisecracks, puns and put-downs. The ancient Romans and Egyptians used puns, and there are some in the Hebrew bible. “Pun Intended”, an old board and card game, has been popular for years.
Puns are surprising statements that derive from multiple meanings of different words and phrases. For example:
“Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.”
“In a democracy it’s your vote that counts. In feudalism, its your count that votes.”
“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
Other phrases are closer to telling a story, but in an unusual way. These paraprosdokians generally try to leave a message or a laugh. For example:
“Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.”
“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.”
“You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.”
Insults Have a place in Comedy
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comedians competed for attention with acts performed by singers, dancers, magicians, acrobats, musicians and animal trainers. They had very little time to impress their audiences.
One way of encouraging audience attention was to engage the audience directly. Comics came on stage and told silly jokes designed to stimulate boos and groans. When hearing these, the comics were well prepared: they created the “put-down.”
Audiences during the days of night club acts and burlesque came equipped with wise cracks to throw at entertainers. Knowing this, comics developed fast and sharp comments and great comedians became famous for put-down remarks.
Put-downs in History
The art of the insult is as old as human history, and many put-downs have been attributed to famous people of the past. For example, Ludwig van Beethoven was quoted as saying to another composer, “I like your opera. I think I will set it to music.” Dorothy Parker, when hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, became famous for saying “How could they tell?”
Winston Churchill, in the course of debates on the floor of the House of Commons, exchanged remarks with Nancy Astor, the first female Member of Parliament. When she called him “disgustingly drunk,” he replied, “My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly.” When she told him that if she were his wife, she’d give him poison, he replied, “If you were my wife, I would take it.”
Henny Youngman, who developed his material before night club audiences, perfected the put-down. Youngman never told dirty or off-color jokes, but he was famous for the speed of his wit and its delivery in staccato, machine-gun like bursts. He could quash an audience with putdowns like these:
“The more I think of you, the less I think of you.”
“It’s good to see you. It means you’re not behind my back.”
“Would you mind looking at me? I’ve got the hiccups.”