Etymologies are fascinating things. Often, they give us insight to information that we never really understood. Do you know why some people (myself included) are opposed to the use of the term “hysterical,” particularly as it pertains to women? Or how about the fact that the term “cliché” is actually an onomatopoetic term (the past participle of the French clicher) used to describe the sound of a stereotype plate (basically the duplicate printing plate used in the printing trade beginning in the late 1700s). Now you have two etymologies that are related to the ad nauseam mass-producing of repeated information without change: cliché and stereotype.
So this got me thinking about etymologies related to comedy. A lot of them give you insight into different genres/styles/characters. For instance, “Fool” comes from the word for “bellows” (you know, that accordion-type thing you use to stoke a fire), so the fool is someone who is full of hot air and who stokes the fire of comedy. “Farce” comes from a French culinary term that means “force-meat” or “stuffing” (think Turducken), so a farce has action, frantic energy, and characters literally bursting at the seams, and the world is always being stretched to its limit. (For a good example, see the Fawlty Towers episode, “Basil the Rat“). “Parody” comes from the Greek roots of “beside/next to” and “song”, so it’s literally a song/poem/act standing beside another, like a bizarre duplicate. See how that works? But by far the most interesting etymological root in regard to comedy belongs to comedy itself.
It’s pretty widely agreed that the term “comedy” has its roots in the Greek komos, which was a sort of drunken festival or procession. Over time, this evolved into scripted Old Comedy that was part of the Greek theatrical festivals.
Oh, did I mention there were giant wieners everywhere?
Yup. So people would dress up in crazy costumes — animals, characters, masks, whatever you can imagine — get totally shitfaced and shout obscenities at each other, all while carrying (or riding) giant carved dongs through town, out to the countryside, for even more drunken revelry. This was the komos.
All in worship of Dionysus and his son, Comus, with a little bit of Pan thrown in for good measure. So there was drinking (Dionysus), excessive celebrating of fertility (Comus), and carnal pleasures (Pan).
There, between bouts of drinking and going off to the bushes for a little gland-to-gland combat, they’d dance around the phallus and decorate it with flowers and fabric and other such nonsense.
So Aristotle, many years later, goes, “Hey, I’m pretty sure that comedy came from the komos.” Why would he say that? It’s not like Greek comedy was obsessed with peniWAITAMINUTE.
But why trouser snakes? One thought: these were celebrations of fertility, and men were the bringers of life in the Greek tradition, not women. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Orestes is put on trial for killing his mom. Apollo, basically acting as his douchey lawyer, gets all misogynistic and tells the jury, “He didn’t really kill his parent, because moms aren’t parents. The true parent is ‘the one who mounts’ [i.e.: dad] and the lady bits are just incubators for the dude’s baby batter.” And this somehow makes the jury go “Oh yeah that totally makes sense” and Orestes GETS ACQUITTED. And why does this matter? Because this play cycle basically sets up democracy and legal systems that will govern democratic societies for the next 2500 years. Sorry, ladies. So back to comedy… seeing as these festivals often took place in the winter or spring, they may have been fertility rituals, celebrating male fertility. Because that was the one that mattered.
Dicks are funny. And funny-lookin’.
So comedy itself is basically a giant sausage party. Ask any woman working in stand-up today, and she’ll probably tell you the same thing. It’s a boy’s club, and it always has been, which is a shame. I don’t believe that women are any less funny than men (and if you do, you’ve clearly been living under a rock), but this idea has dominated the comedy landscape for centuries. All because we started out associating comedy with dude bits. Hell, one of the first recorded jokes is a dick joke: “What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before?” “A key.”
But AJ, I hear you say, that was then. This is now. Things must have changed!
All this to say: comedy is a celebration of tallywackers. And the best comedians today, in my opinion, make fun of this fact even as they engage in it (pure celebration without recognition lends itself toward a sense of misogyny and a perpetuation of an already male-dominated field). Take Monty Python (whose name itself has a certain phallic ring) or South Park (who managed to get the subtitle of their movie, “Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” past the censors) for example:
But etymology only takes you so far, and once we recognize the historical precedent for this sort of thing, we can recognize those people who are working to change it for the better. Here are some amazing women doing comedy today, lest we despair that comedy is too engorged with its own phallogocentrism:
And if you’re not watching Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, or Brooklyn 99,you’re missing out on some amazingly talented women putting nearly three millennia of comic obsession with wieners in its place. But this post is getting long (hee hee hee) and those shows are topics for future posts.