Comic relief


Spending years at home with my children, I grew accustomed to hearing their bubbling laughter every day. Now, having returned to full-time work, I can see how enormously important it is to introduce comedy into the workplace. It can brighten a dull day, breathe new life into our working relationships and renew our energy to work. Starting a new job this week has involved considerable adjustment on the home front, a mountain of administration, attending induction sessions, teaching preparation and madly trying to finish a book chapter before the university semester commences. It’s time for some comic relief! Here are three ancient Greek fables that always make me laugh:


Hermes wanted to know how much people valued him, so he assumed a human form and went into a sculptor’s workshop. He saw there a statue of Zeus and he asked how much it cost. The man said that it cost a drachma. Hermes smiled, and asked how much the statue of Hera would be. The man named a still higher price. When Hermes saw a statue of himself, he expected that he would be reckoned at an even higher price, since he delivered the messages of the gods and brought profit to mankind. But when he asked how much the statue of Hermes would cost, the sculptor replied, ‘If you buy those other two, I’ll throw this one in for free!’


There was a woman who had a middle-aged man as her lover and although she was no spring chicken herself, she concealed her age with exquisite grace. There was also a beautiful young girl who had caught the man’s fancy. Both women wanted to seem a suitable partner for him, so they began plucking out his hair in turn. The man imagined that his looks were being improved by their attentions but in the end he went bald, since the young girl plucked out every one of his gray hairs, while the older woman plucked out all the black ones.


There was once a doctor who knew nothing about medicine. So when everyone was telling a certain sick man, ‘Don’t give up, you will get well; your illness is the sort that lasts for a while, but then you will feel better,’ this doctor marched in and declared, ‘I’m not going to play games with you or tell you lies: you need to take care of all your affairs because you are going to die. You cannot expect to live past tomorrow.’ Having said this, the doctor did not even bother to come back again. After a while the patient recovered from his illness and ventured out of doors, although he was still quite pale and not yet steady on his feet. When the doctor ran into the patient, he greeted him, and asked him how all the people down in Hades were doing. The patient said, ‘They are taking it easy, drinking the waters of Lethe. But Persephone and the mighty god Pluto were just now threatening terrible things against all the doctors, since they keep the sick people from dying. Every single doctor was denounced, and they were ready to put you at the top of the list. This scared me, so I immediately stepped forward and grasped their royal sceptres as I solemnly swore that since you are not really a doctor at all, the accusation was ridiculous!’

Now that we have had some comic relief, it’s time to consider what exactly comedy gives us relief from. In the Poetics, Aristotle described tragedy as ‘bringing to an end’ the emotions of pity and fear and he called this process ‘cathartic’ (1). Does comedy also bring to an end certain emotions and if so what are these emotions? On this topic, Aristotle is less forthcoming. There is a curious little work attributed to Aristotle with a hideous title (the Tractatus Coislinianus) that offers the following: “[c]omedy is an imitation of an action that is absurd and lacking in grandeur…through pleasure and laughter achieving the purgation of the like emotions” (2). Mmm, not exactly satisfactory is it? The observation that comedy targets the absurd and mundane is fair enough. But is Aristotle really suggesting that comedy frees us from pleasure and laughter because those emotions and reactions are undesirable? Surely not.

When I think about my favourite comedians and comediennes, I can see how they tap into everyday situations that usually provoke feelings of annoyance, anger, indignation, irritation and/or contempt. Comedy reveals the absurdity of these situations and redefines them within new parameters. Through the act of laughing, I am purged of these negative emotions as part of a cathartic process. There is no greater relief from negativity than having a good laugh (well, actually, that’s not true, there are other great forms of relief!). It is simply impossible to feel annoyed and amused at the same time. I think comic catharsis is a real phenomenon but the definition we have been given is inadequate. However it is defined, I am certainly grateful for it at the end of a long working week.

Fables (no. 562, 584 and 587) sourced from:


  1. Aristotle, Poetics, 1449b24-28. See the mention of catharsis also in Aristotle’s Politics 8.7.1341b32.
  2. Tractatus Coislinianus, IV.

Further reading:

  1. R. Janko, Aristotle on Comedy, Duckworth, London, 1984,
  2. L. Cooper, An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy, Kraus Reprint Co. New York, 1969.

Header image:

Terracotta figurine of a comic actor with tympanos: Greek, 375-350 BCE
Paris, Louvre Museum.



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