Cicero advises that explaining a joke kills it. I am going to ignore his advice and try to write about what the Romans found funny: where did their sense of humour converge with, and diverge from, ours? Looking at the largest surviving body of evidence for Roman comedy – the so-called fabulae palliatae (“plays in (Greek) cloaks”), Latin narrative comedies with Greek scenarios and Greek dress, written by Plautus and Terence in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC – we can recognise various elements that might succeed in a modern comedy.
The structure of many jokes today bear a striking resemblance to their ancient counterparts, and many modern comedies mine character traits that are very similar to the popular stock types of ancient comedy. We can also, however, see things that would not pass muster today: the rape of women by men, however contrite, is resolved through marriage; sexist stereotypes about women being inconstant, extravagant, and deceitful pop up without criticism; and many of the puns might raise more than a groan.
So, to give a better sense of this raucous artform from over 2,000 years ago, here are four particularly common ways in which the two most successful Roman comedic playwrights made their audiences laugh:
1. Stock characters
Recurring character types in Roman comedy include: the arrogant yet incompetent soldier; the oily, flattering parasite, or social hanger-on; the mean-spirited bawd; the grotesque pimp; the clever, trickster slave; the humourless old miser; the dirty old man; the young lover. These types have a long history in both Greek comic drama and the traditional forms of entertainment on the Italian peninsula. Some survive even today, most notably the arrogant yet inept buffoon, the parasite, the trickster, and the humourless old man.
Boastful soldiers are sent up memorably both in Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (“The Swaggering Soldier,” c.206 BC) and Terence’s Eunuchus (“The Eunuch,” 161 BC). Plautus’ Pyrgopolinices (“Destroyer of Towers and Cities”) claims to have saved the god of war Mars from a grandson of Neptune, allegedly named in classic Plautine gibberish Bumbomachides Clytomestoridysarchides (“Mr Roaring-Fighter-Famous-Adviser-Rubbish-Ruler-son”), a feat that we are informed by his parasite Artotrogus (“Bread Nibbler”) is, of course, utter hogwash. Today we might think of various loudmouths, such as Jay in The Inbetweeners.
Pyrgopolinices and his enemy both have coined names that are comically apt for their characteristics. Such ‘speaking’ names were clearly a popular trope of Roman, and indeed Greek, humour. This literary device goes back as far as the 5th century BC with Aristophanes, and even as far as Homer’s Odyssey: the leaders of the suitors leeching off of an absent Odysseus are called Antinous (“Mr Contrary-mind”) and Eurymachus (“Broad Fighter”). Plautus, unlike Terence, makes widespread use of this device, and these lively neologisms were clearly popular with his audiences. Principal characters don’t tend to have such names in modern comedies: they are clunky, a bit on the nose, and reduce characters to one particular trait. They occasionally occur, however, in cutaway gags and cameos: Family Guy makes frequent recourse to ‘James Bottomtooth III’, an aristocratic American with an enormous, protruding bottom lip that makes his voice a posh, strained, and inarticulate bellow, and ‘Buzz Killington’, a Victorian, Lincoln-esque buzzkill.
Oily parasites were popular targets in ancient humour, as they are today. In the Eunuchus,Terence’s Thraso (“Boldman”) passes off old jokes as his own inventions; his simpering parasite Gnatho (“Jawman”) affects raucous laughter with a hahahae to suck up to him (not a far cry from the hahahas that I write daily on WhatsApp). The parasite was a stock character of Greek (and subsequently Roman) comedy from the 4th century BC onwards, who, prompted by constant hunger, made a profession out of brown-nosing someone he depended on for a meal. The earnest flattery of arrogant idiots has a rich afterlife in, for example, the dynamic between David Brent and Gareth Keegan / Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute in The Office (UK / US), or General Melchett and Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Forth.
Tricksters were perhaps Plautus’ greatest triumph, as he left a cornucopia of cunning schemers behind for comedic posterity. Many of his characters trick to get what they want, or just for the fun of trickery: Mercury (Amphitruo),Libanus and Leonida (Asinaria), Chrysalus (Bacchides), Cleustrata (Casina), Palinurus and Curculio (Curculio), Epidicus (Epidicus), Palaestrio (Miles Gloriosus), Tranio (Mostellaria), Toxalus (Persa), Pseudolus (Pseudolus), Phronesium (Truculentus). They are responsible for most of the fun in the plays, and their prankster playfulness is usually at play somewhere today: for example, Tim / Jim in The Office (UK / US), who also doubles up as a modern version of the young Roman in love.
2. Set-up … punchline
The structure of many of the jokes in Terence and Plautus bears a striking resemblance to modern joke-telling. A set-up introduces some incongruity or tension; the punchline defuses, clarifies, or blasts through that tension with a secondary proposition or idea. A modern example might be The Pajama Men’s line about the phrase ‘All killer, no filler’ in their 2013 Edinburgh show, Just The Two Of Each Of Us, or Katharine Ryan’s joke about a patronising fellow mother at her child’s school and her spandex-clad cyclomaniac mid-life-crisis-stricken North London husband. A classic instance in Plautus is jokes of the ‘my father is a fly’ type. In his Mercator (“The Merchant,” date unknown but likely to be one of Plautus’ early plays), a young male romantic, Charinus, wants to keep his romance with an enslaved woman, Pasicompsa, secret from his lecherous father, Demipho, who has caught sight of her at the harbour and is desperate to find out more about her. Charinus tells the audience, “My father is a fly: you can’t keep anything secret from him” (musca est meus pater: nil clam illum potest haberi, line 381).
Similarly, in Eunuchus, Thraso tells the story of how he roasted a young man with this type of joke for trying to flirt with the young woman he’d taken to a feast. He says, “So I said to him, ‘Are you a hare: are you trying to pick up the tasty bits?’” (lepus tute es, pulpamentum quaeris?, line 426). Quite obscure, no? In his commentary on the play, however, the 4th-century critic Aelius Donatus provides an explanation. The hare, he says, was considered a delicacy, so Thraso is essentially saying: “you’re a delicacy (sexual / nutritional): you can’t be going for my delicacy (sexual).” While hardly a lolcano, it does satisfy the formula of Incongruity + Pause ––> Clarity.
3. Playing games, over and over again
Roman comedy frequently makes use of a ‘game’ structure, and its frequency suggests its popularity. ‘Game’ structure is a key principle of many schools of improvised comedy today. The Free Association in London, for example, one of the capital’s main improvisation schools, defines game as “a comedic pattern that repeats”. Actors play out a ‘grounded’ (=normal) scenario until the ‘shiny thing’ emerges: someone says something a bit weird that the audience respond to, most commonly with a laugh or a perceptible apprehension in the room. The other actor(s) might verbalise this apprehension by simply saying, “Sorry, what?” This ‘shiny thing’ is then developed into a point of view for the character, which either annoys / baffles other people on stage or is used to annoy the person with the point of view. A perfect example of this would be Keegan Key’s and Jordan Peele’s “Substitute Teacher” sketch, where a proud and hard-as-nails substitute teacher, Mr Garvey, cannot pronounce any names on the register correctly, but is increasingly incensed when the bearers of those names gently correct him.
We find Plautus using ‘game’ structure most famously in the “okay-yep” passage in Rudens (“The Rope,” lines 1212–27). The master of the house, Daemones, comes out to find Trachalio, the slave of the young romantic Plesidippus. Daemones gives Trachalio a list of instructions and, after every instruction, Trachalio says licet (“okay”). The schtick is then reversed as Trachalio gives Daemones a list of instructions, and every instruction is answered with licet. We can see how much this repetition has irritated Daemones, because after Trachalio leaves he calls upon Hercules to curse Trachalio (infelicet, a nonsense word that could be taken along the lines “Let him be damned!”, line 1225) for saying licet so much. In this instance, the game isn’t the repetitions, but rather what the repetitions are doing to Daemones: making him increasingly angry. The pun in infelicet is difficult to reproduce in English, but the mechanism of the game is plain to see. Simple repetition is, furthermore, a ‘shiny’ aspect of Trachalio’s character: later on, in lines 1269–79, he will do the same thing with the word censeo (usually “I think so” – but in the context of the scene it could easily be translated as “yep” or “sounds good”).
Plautus flexes his metacomical muscles more frequently and overtly than Terence does, but the Romans clearly had a soft spot for breaking the fourth wall in theatre, busting the artifice wide open by overtly commenting on it. Both Plautus’ and Terence’s plays include Prologues, in which the audience watching the play are directly addressed in a self-aware manner, much like a master of ceremonies. But it is within Plautus’ stories as well that characters talk about what they are doing as if they were directing, writing, or starring in a play. In a famous soliloquy, the titular character in Pseudolus (“The Liar,” 191 BC) deliberates on how to secure money for his master Callidorus in the language of literary invention: “Now I’ll be like a poet, taking the tablet on the knee, searching for what doesn’t exist, but still managing to discover it, making verisimilitude of a lie” (402–4).
Many have speculated as to whether Plautus played some of his metatheatrical roles himself. Why Plautus found metatheatre so productive is a complex question, but its popularity with the Roman audiences might have something to do with the varied literary heritage of the fabulae palliatae.A major influence on Plautus’ work was the pre-literary Atellan farce, a performance tradition native to southern Italy. This made large-scale use of improvisation with a rough outline of narrative beats. A form of dramatic art so heavily bound up with the present moment must naturally acknowledge the artifice of live performance. This is true today. In my experience, most of the funniest moments in improv rely on the grey area between performers’ self-awareness and their commitment to the world they are creating; this grey area is often spotlighted by ‘corpsing’ – when laughter bubbles up uncontrollably among the actors themselves. For one such instance, see this scene from the improvised Netflix specials Middleditch & Schwartz:
Metatheatre is just as lucrative today. Off the top of my own individual and necessarily subjective head, I can name several critically acclaimed modern narrative comedies that use the device repeatedly: Community, Fleabag, Rick and Morty, 30 Rock, The Office (UK / US), and anything by Mischief Theatre. Equally, this is just one corner of the comedy market. Narratives that do not acknowledge and wrestle with their own artifice are just as popular: Call My Agent, Brooklyn 99, Atlanta, Stath Lets Flats, The Thick of It / Veep.
A simple but major divergence between ancient and modern comedy is how spoilt we are for choice of media: we can watch films, television shows, single-camera / multi-camera sitcoms, radio sitcoms / panel shows / solo shows, live improv, screened improv, comedy plays, stand-up, sketch, clowning. A luxury of this smorgasbord is that not every piece has to acknowledge its own artifice, which most naturally lends itself to live performance.
These are just some of the devices Plautus and Terence used to make their audiences chuckle. My feeling is that the Romans laughed at a lot of things that we find funny today, but some of them also laughed at a lot of things we do not. The plays received funding and production opportunities from the male, political elite, so it is no surprise that they sometimes represent with levity and normalise many things which we now condemn: male dominance, objectification of women, crude racial stereotyping, etc.
There are points of convergence, however, both on the technical level of joke structure, and of productive tropes: a very common feature of Roman comedy is the frustration of old, wealthy, stupid men who take themselves too seriously. This trope was immensely popular with the Roman audience, whose diversity meant that they would have found it funny for different reasons, whether it was an older elite man laughing at a hyperbolic representation of himself, or a younger slave laughing at the inversion of traditional social norms.
The audience’s demographic had the potential to vary enormously in terms of wealth, class, gender, and civil status of enslaved / free, and, as part of their holiday, they all casually attended the festivals, ludi, at which these plays were performed. This trope of elderly male idiocy and frustration allowed Plautus and Terence to appeal to the full range of their viewers. It is equally popular with us: one only need think of Chevy Chase’s character Piers Hawthorne in Community, and the propensity of most episodes to send him up in some way.
To quote Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962), Roman comedy made new complications of old situations. Today, their old situations would come across as tired, conservative, and, well, old. There is a greater and welcome drive to produce comedy that focuses on the worlds of people of a variety of social, political, and cultural circumstances: the world is bigger and so is the variation in the kinds of consumer. There are, however, striking overlaps between ancient and modern humour, on both a linguistic level and a character-level, despite the difference in audience demographics and taste.
Orlando Gibbs is a PhD candidate at Trinity College, Cambridge, researching Roman Comedy and working on a commentary on Plautus’ Mostellaria (“The One About the Ghost”). His interests include Republican, Augustan, and Imperial Latin literature, Greek and Roman drama, textual criticism.
For anyone keen to pursue the subject of what tickled the ancients further, there are the aptly titled Greek Laughter by Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge UP, 2008) and Laughter in Ancient Rome: on Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up by Mary Beard (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2015).