At the annual Athenian drama festival in 426 BC, a comic play called The Babylonians, written by a young poet named Aristophanes, was awarded first prize. But the play’s depiction of Athens’ conduct during the Peloponnesian War was so controversial that afterwards, a politician named Kleon took Aristophanes to court for "slandering the people of Athens in the presence of foreigners." Aristophanes struck back two years later with a play called The Knights. In it, he openly mocked Kleon, ending with Kleon’s character working as a lowly sausage seller outside the city gates. This style of satire was a consequence of the unrestricted democracy of 5th century Athens and is now called "Old Comedy." Aristophanes’ plays, the world’s earliest surviving comic dramas, are stuffed full of parodies, songs, sexual jokes, and surreal fantasy. They often use wild situations, like a hero flying to heaven on a dung beetle, or a net cast over a house to keep the owner’s father trapped inside, in order to subvert audience expectations. And they’ve shaped how comedy’s been written and performed ever since.
The word "comedy" comes from the Ancient Greek "komos," – revel, and "oide," – singing, and it differed from its companion art form, "tragedy" in many ways. Where ancient Athenian tragedies dealt with the downfall of the high and mighty, their comedies usually ended happily. And where tragedy almost always borrowed stories from legend, comedy addressed current events. Aristophanes’ comedies celebrated ordinary people and attacked the powerful. His targets were arrogant politicians, war-mongering generals, and self-important intellectuals, exactly the people who sat in the front row of the theatre, where everyone could see their reactions. As a result, they were referred to as komoidoumenoi: "those made fun of in comedy." Aristophanes’ vicious and often obscene mockery held these leaders to account, testing their commitment to the city.
One issue, in particular, inspired much of Aristophanes’ work: the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. In Peace, written in 421 BC, a middle-aged Athenian frees the embodiment of peace from a cave, where she’d been exiled by profiteering politicians. Then, in the aftermath of a crushing naval defeat for Athens in 411 BC, Aristophanes wrote "Lysistrata." In this play, the women of Athens grow sick of war and go on a sex strike until their husbands make peace. Other plays use similarly fantastic scenarios to skewer topical situations, such as in "Clouds," where Aristophanes mocked fashionable philosophical thinking. The hero Strepsiades enrolls in Socrates’s new philosophical school, where he learns how to prove that wrong is right and that a debt is not a debt. No matter how outlandish these plays get, the heroes always prevail in the end.
Aristophanes also became the master of the parabasis, a comic technique where actors address the audience directly, often praising the playwright or making topical comments and jokes. For example, in "Birds," the Chorus takes the role of different birds and threatens the Athenian judges that if their play doesn’t win first prize, they’ll defecate on them as they walk around the city. Perhaps the judges didn’t appreciate the joke, as the play came in second.
By exploring new ideas and encouraging self-criticism in Athenian society, Aristophanes not only mocked his fellow citizens, but he shaped the nature of comedy itself. Hailed by some scholars as the father of comedy, his fingerprints are visible upon comic techniques everywhere, from slapstick to double acts to impersonations to political satire. Through the praise of free speech and the celebration of ordinary heroes, his plays made his audience think while they laughed. And his retort to Kleon in 425 BC still resonates today: “I’m a comedian, so I’ll speak about justice, no matter how hard it sounds to your ears.”