Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for your headliner... Cicero

Dave Rymer on the Ancient Roman's contribution to comedy

The name Marcus Tullius Cicero is one that, irrespective of how many comedy DVDs or books you buy, you are unlikely to see listed as an influence in terms of a comic’s career.

The truth however, is that without the oratory and writing of this ancient Roman philosopher, many of the tools of comedy may not have made their way through to us in the 21st Century. It is an odd idea that a man who spent most of his time either in the senate or the courts, should have popularised many of the staple jokes and structures of modern Western comedy.

I won’t give you a detailed history lesson, but briefly, he was influential on most levels of the Roman government, making friends and then falling out with Caesar and Augustus and anyone else you may have heard of from the 1st Century BC (a bit of a shot in the dark that, if I’m honest) until he was rather brutally killed 43BC. Alongside this, he was for most of his career, Rome’s best lawyer and orator and it is in these speeches, defences and lectures that a good deal of our rules and ideas on comedy have their roots.

He was, by all accounts, a mesmerising public speaker (although, in fairness, most of these ‘accounts’ are his own). He was good in a way that it is very difficult for a politician to be now. His speeches could last hours and be rammed full of irony, wit and aposiopesis and people would turn up from miles around to see one of his great ones. If Gordon Brown tried that now, no one would get to see it – even if they were interested – as the only thing that would be shown on Newsnight would be the moment 20 minutes in where Jack Straw was picking his nose in the background.

This is where comedians have the advantage, and more of a similarity with the likes of Cicero. They tour the country making their ‘speeches’ and have control over what they say and how it is seen. In the ’soundbite’ culture, politicians don’t use much these oratorial techniques, as generally you need more than 15 seconds to get your point across. But they are more appropriate and effective for comedians being, performers who are likely to hold an audience’s attention an hour or more at a time.

Cicero, for example, triumphed the idea of aposiopesis in speeches - where a sentence is deliberately broken off and left to hang unfinished in the air for added effect - to allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. Plenty of comics do this, both to make a point and to challenge the audience to think a bit deeper about what is being said.

It is underpinned by the whole idea of the structured subtext and the idea that the thing you don’t say is often funnier/more effective than the thing you do. Again, this is something championed extensively by Cicero and used extensively in his work. It is one of the most widespread of his influences on comedy as you can see variations of this at work in material from Mark Thomas to Tim Vine.

Arguably more widespread even than this is the humble ‘pull back and reveal’ comic device. Viewed in something of a snobbish way in some circles, it was used to great effect in some of his greatest speeches. A lot like some of today’s best comedy shows,

Cicero spoke in a periodic way and particularly later in his career, in something of a slow-building, deliberate, methodical way which would have the audience guessing where he would be going. Cicero’s pull back and reveal, unlike most club comedians, would be constructed in long phrases, it would be more akin to the slow, tense, suspense filled build up of a good horror film than a ‘…then I got off the bus’ type joke. All the same, the modern pull back and reveal has some of its roots in the courts of Ancient Rome. Think of that the next time you see Joe Pasquale serve up another pearler.

The rule of three is another that has its base in Cicero’s speeches and teaching. This is a fairly well known rule nowadays, even working its way into a Toby Ziegler rant in the West Wing, but in the courts and the senate of Ancient Rome it was an entirely different prospect. Cicero’s slow delivery style, almost forcing the words out, building up to a punchline or long awaited conclusion, gave it the feeling of power that he required it to have.

These days it normal to see a comedian as part of their act, listing three items, building up to the funniest, most unusual or most absurd one, but then it wasn’t and it was one of Cicero’s greatest tools for humour and to get the room laughing with him, or more often, at the opposition.

The rhythm of speeches was an important technique before Cicero’s time but it was still a tool that he employed to great effect. It appears to have been a very highly regarded talent in Ancient Rome for a public speaker to effectively judge the rhythm of his sentences. It was almost as if the way a point was put across was as important to them as what was actually being said.

This is something that comedy fans are all too familiar with, as everyone has seen a good comic with presence and timing shine even if the material isn’t the greatest, while an equal amount will have watched someone with decent material make a hash of it, simply through poor timing or word order.

Cicero understood, seemingly better than anyone, the importance of the balance and flowing nature of sentences and spent years studying this art before bringing it into his speeches. The rhythmically pleasing nature of one of Tim Minchin’s beat poems could maybe be seen in similar terms, as something which seems not just lyrically perfect, but is also a joy to listen to, just for listening’s sake.

There are several other techniques or tools used by the modern comedian which were popularised or brought to the fore by Cicero. Sarcastically overstating a point for effect, or the use of irony as a cutting lawcourt weapon to name but two.

Although he is known for his argument forming and speech making skills, it should be remembered that in view of his ‘one man show’ oratorical performances in the senate, combined with his knowledge and interest in Ancient Greek philosophy, comedy and writing (where he learnt the basis for a lot of his talents and the techniques I’ve mentioned), he was perhaps unwittingly providing much of the basis for what we know as stand-up comedy.

Published: 12 Jun 2009

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