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1640 painting of a commedia dell'arte troupe on a wagon in a town square

That's the way to do it! The history of British comedy

Image: The roots of British comedy lie in the Italian theatrical traditions of commedia dell'arte | Public Domain

From the touring comedy troupes of the Elizabethan age and the plays of Shakespeare to the arrival of Music Hall entertainment and pantomime, the history of comedy has been one of evolvement, embracing social and political changes in society.

Elizabethan and Jacobean Comedy

Ben Johnson wrote both tragedies and comedies often filling his plays with racy political passages. Unlike Shakespeare, Johnson specialised in city-based comedies and is best known for popularising the comedy of humours.

Volpone is one of Johnson’s most well-known plays, a comedy taking an intensely sceptical view of human nature. The premise of the story is that the eponymous character comes up with a plan to fool each of his friends that he is on his deathbed. The comedy derives from hoodwinking his friends as they bring him lavish gifts believing they will be rewarded in his will.

Often Jacobean comedy flouted social norms exploring sex and class and exposing society’s hypocrisy and complacency.

‘Court Masques’ performed by and for nobles had their roots in the Middle Ages and derived from the pageants, processionals and tableaus that were created to celebrate royal occasions like births, deaths and marriages. Court Masques had much music, little plot and were about themes like love, beauty and virtue and acted out with fairytale stories of nymphs, gods and cupids. They reaffirmed social order and class, emphasising the magnificence of the current ruler.

Commedia dell’arte

Commedia dell’arte was a whimsical theatrical art form that emerged in northern Italy in the 15th century and gained popularity throughout Europe in the 16th century. Its form was distinguished by its cast of larger-than-life stock characters, played by professional actors who travelled in troupes and often played on temporary stages and city streets.

The characters of the Commedia dell'arte belonged to one of three categories; masters, lovers and servants. Each company had a stock of scenarios, often presenting soliloquies and witty exchanges usually performed in extravagant masks. A typical stage scenario involved a young couple’s love being thwarted by their parents.

The decline of the Commedia dell'arte was due to a variety of factors, notably the rich verbal language that was lost on foreign audience and as the comic business became routine, it lost its vitality.

Punch & Judy

‘That’s the way to do it!’ is the still recognised catchphrase of the famous anarchic character from a traditional puppet show that dates back to 1827 and has been performed for over 300 years. The archetypical and controversial British figure Punch, with his long-suffering wife Judy, has origins in the 16th century Italian puppet, Pulcinella, a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry.

The traditional show depicts an interaction between Mr Punch and another character who falls victim to his scheming and slapstick tomfoolery. The character’s grotesque and violent behaviour in the show backfires on him.

Popular in the 19th century, particularly as seaside entertainment around the country, the shows’ casual violence, particularly that from Punch to his wife, is today seen as inappropriate entertainment for children. Previous racist and misogynistic undertones in the narrative of the shows have been changed to accommodate contemporary values.

Music Hall

The origins of Music Hall began in 18th century coffee houses, saloon bars and taverns across England and Europe. Performers would entertain customers while they were enjoying a beverage or meal. Some of the venues began to dedicate more time to these often-bawdy entertainments featuring working-class artists and even arranging rooms specifically for the performances.

By the 1850s, Music Hall theatres sprang up around the country in towns and cities. One of the most famous was the Canterbury Hall, opened in 1852 with a capacity of 700. Due to its popularity, a new hall was opened in January 1855, accommodating 1,500 people.

Music Hall was a new concept of theatre and affordable to its largely working-class audiences, often only costing nine pence admission. The halls saw a smattering of upper-class customers making the often raucous and boisterous atmosphere a convergence of social classes. The entertainment mainly comprised of risqué catchy songs and comedy acts encompassing gymnastic acrobatic performers as well as dance troupe routines. One of the most famous and controversial stars of the era was Marie Lloyd who entertained audiences with her racy songs peppered with innuendo.

As new mediums such as radio and cinema became popular recreational activities, Music Hall was increasingly irrelevant by the beginning of the 20th century and virtually disappeared by the 1940s.


The unique, theatrical entertainment and art form has its roots in commedia dell’arte, where its presentation of mischievous characters and slapstick comedy can be traced back to the 16th century.

John Rich, a dancer, acrobat and mime artist in the 1720s, is a key figure in the emergence of pantomime. Rich, who managed a theatre in London’s Lincoln Inn Fields, produced the first pantomime, The Magician, in 1721.

The tenants of pantomimes present gender role reversal, slapstick comedy and eccentric costumes which have continued over the centuries to today, with expensive theatrical shows staged at Christmas.

The shows are often based on popular fairytales. Cinderella is the most well-known with its rags-to-riches story of an orphaned girl living with her stepmother and evil stepsisters. The traditional Panto Dame roles, played by a man in a variety of drag incarnations, include Nurse Glucose, Sarah the Cook and Widow Twanky.

80s New Wave and Stand-Up

In November 1982, Britain saw the brand-new ‘Channel Four’ channel launching and debuting a comedy show, Comic Strip Presents featuring acting talents Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer and Ade Edmonson. The anarchic series, often parodying establishment figures, reflected a radical change in comedy in the country inspired by stand-up comedy and other performance trends at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Over the pond, television shows such as Saturday Night Live, where comedians performed comedy that was observational, irreverent and peppered with irony, was part of the zeitgeist.

The early 80s saw this ‘New Wave’ comedy kamikaze into Hollywood itself where movies such as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and the first of ‘gross out-parody’ films like Kentucky Fried Chicken became unexpected box office hits.

In Britain, alternative comedy had already raised its head with BBC’s Monty Python series in the late 60s and early 70s, which baffled and shocked unsuspecting viewers in equal measures. By the mid-80s, wry, witty and sardonic humour was showcased in popular sitcoms Blackadder, The Young Ones and risqué sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News.