There is little exact information regarding the origin of ancient Greek comedy. According to Aristotle, writing a century and a half later, it first took shape in Megara and Sicyon, and Susarion, the earliest Athenian comic poet, is himself supposed to have come from Megara. Aristotle also connects the origin of Comedy with popular phallic processions, and claims that it received official recognition (and thus state support) in Athens somewhat later than tragedy did. The Suda, supplemented by some inscriptional evidence, suggests that the earliest dramatic competitions in Athens took place at the City Dionysia festival in the early 480s B.C., and that a second competition was added at the Lenaeafestival around 450. But comedies of some sort written by Epicharmus were performed already in the 490s in the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily, and the origins of the genre cannot in fact be determined with any precision. The name itself apparently comes from the Greek words komos, which means reveling band, and the verb aeido, to sing.
Comedies were performed in Athens in formal competitions at two major festivals in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and now of theater. Each festival seems to have featured five comic poets staging a single play apiece, although it is possible that programs were reduced to three poets for a period due to the financial pressures of the Peloponnesian War. Poets applied to the archon in charge of the relevant festival for the right to participate in it. If chosen, they were awarded a choregos, i.e. a wealthy man who funded the performance as a form of taxation.
Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that Comedy is a representation of laughable people and involves some kind of blunder or ugliness which does not cause pain or disaster.
The earliest Athenian comedy, from the 480s to 440s BC, is almost entirely lost. The most important poets of the period were Magnes, whose work survives only in a few fragments of dubious authenticity, and Cratinus, who took the prize at the City Dionysia probably sometime around 450 BC. Although no complete plays by Cratinus are preserved, they are known through hundreds of fragments.
For modern readers, the most important Old Comic dramatist is Aristophanes, whose works, with their pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and scatological innuendo, effectively define the genre today. Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day, as can be seen, for example, in his buffoonish portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and in sexual and political farce Lysistrata. It is nonetheless important to realize that he was only one of a large number of comic poets working in Athens in the late 5th century, his most important contemporary rival being Eupolis.
The Old Comedy subsequently influenced later European writers such as Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, and Voltaire. In particular, they copied the technique of disguising a political attack as buffoonery. The legacy of Old Comedy can be seen today in political satires such as Dr. Strangelove and in the televised buffoonery of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live.
Old Comedy has been called one of the "sports" of literature in that it is so fantastic and unbridled.
The line between Old and Middle Comedy is not clearly marked chronologically, Aristophanes and others of the latest writers of the Old Comedy being sometimes regarded as the earliest Middle Comic poets. For ancient scholars, the term may have meant little more than "later than Aristophanes and his contemporaries, but earlier than Menander". Middle Comedy is generally seen as differing from Old Comedy in three essential particulars: it had no chorus, public characters were not impersonated or personified onstage, and the objects of ridicule were general rather than personal, literary rather than political. For at least a time, mythological parody was popular among the Middle Comic poets. Stock characters of all sorts also emerge: courtesans, parasites, revelers, philosophers, boastful soldiers, and especially the self-conceited cook with his parade of culinary science
Because no complete Middle Comic plays have been preserved, it is impossible to offer any real assessment of their literary value or "genius". But many Middle Comic plays appear to have been revived in Sicily and Magna Graecia in this period, suggesting that they had considerable widespread literary and social appeal.
Substantial fragments of New Comedy have survived, but no complete plays. The most substantially preserved text is the Dyskolos ("Difficult Man, Grouch") by Menander, discovered on a papyrus in 1958. The so-called "Cairo Codex" (found in 1907) also preserves long sections of plays as Epitrepontes ("Men at Arbitration"), The Girl from Samos, and Perikeiromene ("The Girl who had her Hair Shorn"). Much of the rest of our knowledge of New Comedy is derived from the Latin adaptations by Plautus and Terence.
For the first time love became a principal element in the drama. The New Comedy relied on stock characters such as the senex iratus, or "angry old man," the domineering parent who tries to thwart his son or daughter from achieving wedded happiness, and who is often led into the same vices and follies for which he has reproved his children, and the bragging soldier newly returned from war with a noisy tongue, a full purse and an empty head. The new comedy depicted Athenian society and the social morality of the period, presenting it in attractive colors but making no attempt to criticize or improve it.