They say comedy is subjective, that a sense of humor is personal, indefinable, unique like a snowflake. That's bullshit. Comedy is universal. Everyone laughs and everyone is funny. Some jokes (and people) are funnier than others, some jokes are funnier to certain people than others and some jokes are funnier when certain other people aren't around, but everybody laughs at something. Usually, we're laughing at each other.
"Comedy aims at representing men as worse ... than in actual life," said Aristotle in his Poetics, describing the kind of comedy one might have encountered at a theater in Athens circa 350 B.C. He goes on to explain that comedy almost invariably involves poking fun at someone, a "lower type" of person who's ugly or defective. Think: the bumbling idiot, the court jester or the half-goat, half-man with a perpetual hard-on. In comparison to fellows like these we feel superior (except for maybe the hard-on guy), and through their pain, we find mirth.
Modern comedy isn't much different. And, as shows like Jackass have proved, few things are as funny as watching an idiot get hurt. Mel Brooks puts it simply: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." Aristotle, two millennia before Brooks, surmised comedy originally came from Sicily, but didn't know for sure because even then nobody took it seriously enough to keep track. This is most likely a Hellenic conceit. What, were Assyrians not funny?
Today, whether it came from Sicily or not, comedy is everywhere, a new universal language, printed in the newspaper, in magazines, broadcast on television, filmed in movies, spoken aloud at the water cooler, printed on T-shirts and digitized on the web, which seems to have evolved a second or third life as "comedy delivery system." Yet since the web has changed almost everything else about how people interact - eradicating written letters, evolving language, eliminating privacy - in studying comedy on the web, I wondered if the web had changed it. If the comedies of Aristotle's peers were somehow unrelated to what we now consume. If the generations of comedians and their new media had somehow altered the core element of the thing itself, made it less ... human.
To get some answers, I went to the source. Not Sicily: the comedians.
First I talked to the cast and creators of The Guild, a comedy series about a group of friends who spend their time playing, and interacting through, the 9-million-player mega-game, World of Warcraft.