Updated: Aug 30, 2021
Is Democracy a necessary condition for Comedy to flourish?
When I Googled ‘the connection between democracy and comedy’, on the first page the search returned a number of articles about how comedy can be good for democracy, help serve social justice in a democracy, and the political impact of comedy.
But today, I want to flip that issue round. How does democracy support a culture of comedy, if indeed it does? This may initially seem a surprising question to a modern reader, but those are familiar with fifth-century Athens and Aristophanes will see what I am getting at. It would seem to be no accident that the ancient comic authors who survive for us were from Athens. But we should be cautious, arguments e silentio are always, at best tenuous, at worst entirely erroneous. Certainly, once we arrive at the period of Old Comedy (c.490 BC onwards) and then New Comedy (roughly fourth century into the Hellenistic era), the most famous comic writers were Aristophanes and Menander.
The article http://www.usu.edu/markdamen/ClasDram/chapters/081earlygkcom.htm looks at early comic scenes and themes. They come from diverse parts of the Greek world. But this does not mean that comedy flourishes everywhere as a public genre.
I am asking, really, whether freedom of speech is important for a truly functioning comedic culture. And, if so, why? Again, when I Googled the following question ‘can comedy flourish in an undemocratic society?’, the return was how comedy can benefit democracy.
So, from and ancient and modern perspective, how closely linked are freedom of speech and comedy? I would argue, VERY, especially when it comes to satirical comedy. It is difficult to imagine an oppressive regime being permissive of searing satire that pokes often disrespectful fun at famous political figures, or celebrities more generally.
This would certainly explain why comedy enjoyed such great popularity in democratic Athens. Demagogue Cleon, Socrates, and Euripides all receive their fair share of digs of Aristophanes. Those aimed at Socrates in The Clouds were clearly so memorable, he claimed in his defence speech that Aristophanes’ caricature in the play had fuelled the charges against him.
America and the UK enjoy a long history of successful political comedy. The UK primarily functions as a democracy, although there are other political elements, not normally associated with democracy, for example the monarchy and House of Lords. Cartoons in the daily papers, programmes such as Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week, and going back a little further Not the Nine o’ Clock News, Spitting Image, Yes Minister, etc, etc. Across the Pond, The Simpsons offers a witty take on modern society, and there are shows such as The Daily Show, The Late Show, and many others. The following list of satirical news programs by country on Wikipedia makes interesting reading.
Freedom of speech is highly valued. How far this should be allowed to go, is a topic for another Sententia and another day. I will certainly return to this. In the meantime, I refer you to the following article on this matter, looking at the Classical terms isēgoria and parrhesia and how they apply to a paradoxical conflict inherent in the concept of freedom of speech.
So, certainly democracy and the value of freedom of speech provides an ideal setting for the flourishing of comedy. But it is certainly not absent from non-democratic states. France has a long history of caricature going back to its pre-democratic days. However, it is telling that it gained a new lease of life with the Revolution, when it became the language of protest (“langage politique en voie d’autonomisation”: https://www.france24.com/fr/france/20201023-la-caricature-une-longue-tradition-fran%C3%A7aise). Following the revolution and the return of the monarchy, various attempts to censure the freedom of the press emerged in the 19th century. They did not last.
Cruel, though some of the jibes can be, it is perhaps something that should be seen as a sign of a healthy democratic culture.