Splitsider

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Humor: Greek for Humor

Before all my Latin scholars get up in arms, yes, technically “humor” originated from the dead language as a word for “body fluid” or “fluid or juice from a wet plant.” But it’s the contextualization of the word humor that belongs to the Greeks. It was the Greeks who applied “humoral medicine” to treat the balance of these bodily fluids they believed controlled a person’s temperament. And it is from the Greek words komoidia, komoidios and komos that we eventually got the English word “comedy.” Granted, Latin had the word “comoedia,” but again, contextualization belongs to the Ancient Greeks. Before I start sounding like the patriarch of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I’ll put down the Windex and give a little contextualization of my own to this piece.

If you are not a world news buff, the current economic crisis in Greece may have all but passed your consciousness by. As much as I follow the news, I’m prone to skip over all things financial because I find it dry and depressing. And since the only B I ever got in college was in Economics 201, I’m especially unfit to properly explain the situation. To say it in the most basic, over-generalized and caveman way: the Greek economy is on a serious downward spiral, a bail-out didn’t work, the EU is currently freaking out and now Greece wants a new Prime Minister even though their current PM George A. Papandreou has been fairly resistant to step down. You’re welcome, now you know everything. Congratulations on acing any future exams you will take on the Greek economic crisis. Love, the worst economics teacher in the world.

But in all seriousness, a lot has been made about what Greek culture has given modern society versus what Modern Greek society has become.  Some would say that these same people who gave us modern democracy are now faltering under it. As a community of comedy enthusiasts, we ought to show some solidarity with Greece. In addition to democracy, mythology and the movie 300, Greece was a godfather of comedy as we know it today.

The fact that Greeks continue to have a sense of humor during these dark economic days is a testament to the country’s comedy legacy. Amidst higher taxes and wage cuts, the Greeks continue to laugh at their Government and particularly the Prime Minister who is now on his way out. Clark Boyd interviewed a radio DJ from the popular comedic morning show “Greek Madness,” about how people are coping through humor. Thymios Kalamoukis cited Greece’s historic tradition of humor as the reason why people can still laugh — and possibly all that sunshine. His favorite economic joke was simply “George [Papandreou] will save the country.”

Boyd also interviewed a couple Greek bands, known for their tongue-in-cheek performance style, about Greek humor and the current crisis. One band member of Locomondo described the Greek humor as “quick, cynical and direct.” A band member from the more hardcore humorous band Lost Bodies recounted his favorite economic crisis joke:

The Greek Finance Minister managed to turn the Euro into shit. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

From this clever barb, we jump back in history to Greece around the 400’s BCE. It is around this time that perhaps the world’s greatest comedian was doing some of his finest work. Part of what is now known as the “Old Comedy” period, Aristophanes was famous for unforgiving political satire, dirty jokes replete with scatological and sexual references and a whole lot of farce. One need only look to a show like Saturday Night Live, who took their own pot shots at Greece’s current situation just in this past episode, to see the inspiration of Aristophanes’ humor in today’s world.

One of his most famous plays, Clouds actually set aside politics to skewer the intellectual community in Athens. One such victim of lampooning was the father of the Socratic method, Socrates. Even though the play was initially not well received, it would later gain notoriety through revised versions. Plato even hypothesized that Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates contributed to the trial against Socrates that would ultimately lead to his execution.

Despite pissing off quite a few politicians, intellectuals and other people of real and supposed distinction, Aristophanes survived to write more than 40 plays and generate an influence on the comedic form that can still be felt today.

The end of the Peloponnesian War through the death of Alexander the Great marked the period of Greek Theater known as Middle Comedy. Unfortunately, no plays survived this period and probably as a result of this no superstar comedic playwrights like Aristophanes emerged from this time.

The “New Comedy” era was ushered in by the playwright Menander and his contemporaries. Menander chose to forego political satire for the plight of the everyday man. You could say his were situational comedies, drawing on the neuroses and relationship drama between ordinary people. With New Comedy, farce, satire and toilet humor were eventually replaced almost entirely with the comedy of human foibles.

Much like my analysis of the current economic crisis, my overview of ancient Greek Comedy hardly does justice to the intricacies and influence of the genre. There are books upon books written on the subject, from the wit to the stereotype characters to the role of the chorus to the lasting influence. Far be it from me to hasten the end of all book-reading — git to the library, and get your learnin’ on.

It is safe to say Greece has always celebrated humor. During these eras, Greece hosted comedy tournaments fittingly in the City of Dionysia — named after the God of Ritual Madness and Partying. No matter how bad things got with disease and war and all other ills of the ancient world, the Greeks always liked to have a good laugh. Some Americans now attribute this historically “good times” attitude to the reason why the country is in shambles. Personally, I’d rather be rich with laughter than money. Which is probably why, like the Greek economy, I’m so broke.

Solidarity, Greece.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

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  • http://twitter.com/petegaines petejayhawk

    I also find it funny that George Papandreou was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and speaks English with a slight Minnesota-by-way-of-northeast-prep-school accent.

    • Danie Hall@twitter

      @petejayhawk, His mother was American and his father who was a former Prime Minister of Greece came to America to take a university post.

  • Danie Hall@twitter

    Comoedia and komoidia are the same word. The former is the Latinization of the Greek word, because comedy was imported from the Greeks by the Romans. Since there was no known prior word for it in Latin, Latin speakers used the Greek word and Latinized it.
    Menander's focus on everyday people rather than political satire was a common feature of most writing and art of the Helenistic period. The polis as a political unit no longer existed, Greek cities had been incorporated into kingdoms, so government was a distant thing to most at that time. Therefore Menander's audience wouldn't have had the same interest in political satire as those in the fifth century, because the average person was disconnected from government, which wasn't local anymore.