Kyōgen is thought to derive from a form of Chinese entertainment that was brought to Japan around the 8th century. This entertainment form became known as sarugaku and initially encompassed both serious drama and comedy. By the 14th century, these forms of sarugaku had become known as noh and kyōgen, respectively.
Kyōgen provided a major influence on the later development of kabuki theater. After the earlier, more ribald forms of kabuki had been outlawed in the mid-17th century, the government permitted the establishment of the new yarō-kabuki (men's kabuki) only on the grounds that it refrain from the previous kabuki forms' lewdness and instead model itself after kyōgen.
Noh had been the official entertainment form of the Edo period, and was therefore subsidized by the government. Kyōgen, performed in conjunction with noh, also received the patronage of the government and the upper class during this time. Following the Meiji Restoration, however, this support ceased. Without government support, noh and kyōgen went into decline, as many Japanese citizens gravitated toward the more "modern" Western art forms. In 1879, however, former President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, while touring Japan, expressed an interest in the traditional art of noh. They became the first Americans to witness noh and kyōgen plays and are said to have enjoyed the performance. Their approval is believed to have sparked a revival of interest in these forms
In modern Japan, kyōgen is performed both separately and as a part of noh. Its traditions are maintained primarily by family groups, especially the Izumi and Okura schools.
Movements and dialogue in kyōgen are typically very exaggerated, making the action of the play easy to understand. Elements of slapstick or satire are present in most kyōgen plays. Some plays are parodies of actual Buddhist or Shinto religious rituals; others are shorter, more lively, simplified versions of noh plays, many of which are derived from folktales.
Kyōgen is performed to the accompaniment of music, especially the flute, drums, and gong. However, the emphasis of kyōgen is on dialogue and action, rather than on music or dance.
Actors in kyōgen, unlike those in noh, typically do not wear masks, unless the role is that of an animal (such as a tanuki or kitsune), or that of a god. Consequently, the masks of kyōgen are less numerous in variety than noh masks. Both masks and costumes are simpler than those characteristic of noh. Few props are used, and minimal or no stage sets.