One of the difficulties when discussing things which make us laugh is that almost everyone uses the words comedy, wit, buffoonery, humor and so on more or less indiscriminately including funny one line jokes. This does not matter much in conversation because it is usually clear what the speaker usually means, but is does matter in a book or article like this in which the words are technical terms.
Comedy and jokes have a long tall history. The word was invented by the Greeks in 486 BC to describe a new kind of theatrical presentation which complemented their productions of tragedy. It was derived from the Greek word komos, a revel, and comedy was in essence.. everything that tragedy was not. Tragedy dealt in a bracing manner with the fall from power and eventual death of heroic figures and the inevitability of fate. More than funny one line jokes.
Comedy was light-hearted and filthy and dealt with the goings on of every day folk like corrupt religious leaders, golden hearted prostitutes, venal slaves, and bent magistrates. Aristotle summed it up as.. an imitation of men who are inferior but not altogether vicious. Tragedy was about heroes, gods, and unhappy endings. Comedy was about ordinary citizens and happy endings.
Philosophers, including Cicero, anxious to make this widely popular, pronounced that comedy was in fact much more meaningful than it seemed; that it had an equally important function to perform as the purifying catharsis of a good dose of tragedy. Ever since the plays of Aristophanes, they explained, the classical role of comedy had been... to correct the irrational and immoral conduct of the foolish, by pointing at them the finger of mockery.
The laughter and funny one line jokes this produced was supposed to ring hideously in the ears of the foolish who would cower back, whimpering, and mend their ways. The curious myth that comedy had creative powers was believed until well into the eighteenth century.
A weapon in the armory of this kind of comedy was satire, much used by the Greeks and Romans. Satire was a violent attack on somebody or something judged to be wicked or foolish using invective, parody, mockery, or anything else which might wound. In its pure form satire was not a comic at all but brilliantly horrific with funny one line jokes mixed in with the fun and games, it gave much of classical comedy its cutting edge. It is in this classical interpretation of the word that such works as Dante's The Divine Comedy and Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy are classified as comedies.
After the introduction of printing to England, comedy of all kinds was widely disseminated in prose and the word comedy was no longer used, only in connection with plays and poems. Its usage broadened until it is now an imprecise, hold all term for any literary or dramatic piece which aims to amuse. Comedy is taken to consist largely of three elements, wit, buffoonery and humor for stories and funny one line jokes