Comedy Can Be Murder

by Neil Ross
Ancient Athens. Up-and-coming comic playwright Aristophanes is accused of murdering his leading actor. With only his one-liners, his brilliant slave Jeevus, and the strong arm of the leggy Lysistrata, he must solve the murder, dodge arrows, and produce the first known comic masterpiece -- against the backdrop of an absurd war. Learn more...

I was introduced to Aristophanes by the Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock in 1966 or '67 in a piece called 'Homer and Humbug' (The piece was much older, dating from Behind the Beyond, 1913). The author is relating his somewhat pathetic attempts to impress people with his knowledge of his classics, dropping names like Homer and Pindar and Virgil and . . .

". . . Aristophanes, the delicious sallies of his wit, sally after sally, each sally explained in a note calling it a sally."

Full stop. As a kid who was fascinated by history and comedy, the notion that there had been a classical comedian was a heady thought indeed. Had someone been cracking wise round and slipping on banana skins round the Parthenon . . . I wanted to know two things. Who was Aristophanes? And perhaps more importantly, who was Sally?

This was before the internet; one couldn't gain a nice package of knowledge with the click of a button. (Try explaining that to kids these days. They don't understand. Might as well hit them over the head with an umbrella. At least that will give you a bit of pleasure.)

Through the crude technology of the time -- books -- I slowly put together a picture of Aristophanes. I also sorted through a few snaps looking for Sally.

Aristophanes (446-386 B.C.E.) was the premier comic playwright of the classical era in ancient Athens.

His most famous play is Lysistrata, the one in which the women go on a sex strike to stop the war.

During most of time he was writing, Athens was at war with Sparta, and the whole countryside of Attica was residing within the walls Although he is politically conservative he is the greatest of the anti-war poets and comedians.

His plays are outrageous, hugely sexual, occasionally scatological and scathing of Athenian politics, most notably those of the War Party.

When he dies his satirical brand of comedy dies with him and he is replaced by a romantic comedy that has ruled ever since. (We see glimpses, of course: 'The Great Dictator', 'Duck Soup', 'Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'.)

At this point, however, I had not yet found the Holy Grail of shtick. A play by Aristophanes. Perhaps his notorious salacious wit was too shocking for the red-neck libraries I was frequenting.

Meanwhile, I was looking for laughs. I was a fan of every one of the comedians who play Athenian roles in 'Comedy Can Be Murder.' (Which I highly recommend if you haven't read it yet, by the way!) But first among equals for me was Groucho Marx, be it vaudeville, movies or quiz show. I saw, watched, read, and listened to everything Groucho.

Leaving me with a series of personality defects which -- while they may be charming in black and white with a greasepaint mustache -- can leave you at a disadvantage when dealing with authority figures.

Next: Meeting Mr. A. (And Sally!)