The 10 Most Absurd Plots from Ancient Comedy

Anyone who’s ever watched a Seth Rogen movie knows that great comedy can be long on laughs, short on plot. Try to recite the story of Pineapple Express from beginning to end in coherent English and you’ll see what I mean. But paper-thin plotting wasn’t invented in 2008. Ancient Greek comedies made about as much narrative sense as a James Brown interview. Add in 2500 years worth of cultural change, and you get scripts that read like a Japanese knock-off of a Will Ferrell film written by someone on ‘shrooms. Ranked from weirdly confusing to utterly incomprehensible, here are ten ancient plots that made more jokes than sense.

1. The Two Menaechmuses: The Parent Trap meets Sister, Sister

In this play (which Plautus promises is not a rip-off), two twins are separated by a “freak accident.” That is, their idiot father accidentally misplaces one of them, Menaechmus, at the mall. Don’t you just hate when that happens?! For a quick fix, dad re-names his other kid Menaechmus. Problem solved! Of course this results in all sorts of shenanigans when the two Menaechmuses unwittingly end up in the same town. But then they figure it out, and the original Menaechmus is so happy he casually sells his wife (what?) and goes to live with his bro.

(Plautus, The Two Menaechmuses)

2. Clouds: Accepted meets Neighbors

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It’s 3AM. Strepsiades bolts upright in bed, frantic about his deadbeat son, Phidippides. The ungrateful runt is spending all his old man’s cash, besides which his long hair makes him look like a dirty hippie. To shape Phidippides up, dad sends him to the Thinkery, a fancy school where élite eggheads discuss urgent topics such as gnat farts. At school, Phidippides learns to continue behaving like an obnoxious dweeb while using dazzlingly empty rhetoric to justify his heinous disrespect. No father who has ever sent a kid to the Ivy Leagues can in any way relate to this story . . .

(Aristophanes, Clouds) 

3. Birds: Idiocracy meets Dave

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If you’ve ever felt sick to death of government blowhards and wanted to get away from it all, Aristophanes has some practical solutions to offer in Birds. For example, why not try ascending into the heavens and talking the birds into building a magnificent utopia there? That’s what Pisthetairos and Euelpides do, because “the crickets only warble on the branches for a month or two,” but the knuckleheads in the Athenian government “warble on about laws for their entire lives.” If this sounds familiar, you probably live in or around D.C. — you may want to consider emigrating to “Cloudcukooland.”

(Aristophanes, Birds 39-41)

4. Lying Slave: Pretty Woman meets Ocean’s 11

It’s the classic boy-meets-girl-but-girl-is-a-prostitute-so-slave-saves-the-day romcom! Ah, that old chestnut. When Calidorus, a nice boy from a good family, falls for a hooker with a heart of gold, he’s got to race against the clock before she gets sold off. Luckily his dad’s slave, Pseudolus, is a lovable evil genius, and he engineers an elaborate heist. Pseudolus manages to swipe the girl off of Ballio, her pimp, which is just as well since Ballio is really, really into whipping people. Of the two, Calidorus is definitely the smart choice.

(Plautus, Lying Slave)

5. Brothers: Two and a Half Men meets Twins

Demea, a straight-laced, salt-of-the-earth suburban dad, sloughs one of his sons off on his brother, Micio. Micio’s the cool new-age dad, and he lets his adopted son, Aeschinus, run free and explore his inner spark or whatever. So of course Aeschinus becomes an irresponsible lout and knocks up a girl out of wedlock. But then Demea’s son, Ctesipho, gets away from his helicopter parents for five seconds and promptly falls for a whore. So everyone argues about how to raise kids, and no one quite knows but everyone gets married somehow so everything is fine.

(Terence, Brothers)

6. Lysistrata: Bridesmaids meets 40 Days and 40 Nights

Lysistrata is about a woman who gets fed up with those mean old Greeks and their silly Peloponnesian war. So she gets the women of Greece to organize a sex strike: if they ever want to get it on again, the men have to give peace a chance. The girls actually manage to pull this off, despite the fact that their idea of effective diplomacy is for everyone to just play nice. In the original, the men would probably have been wearing enormous fake hard-ons, which would have explained why the women’s ridiculous peace proposition was so irrefutably persuasive.

(Aristophanes, Lysistrata)

7. Frogs: Shaun of the Dead meets This is the End

Frogs has everything. Erudite literary satire. Incisive political commentary. So many poop jokes. Dionysus (god of getting plastered and playing dress-up) gets a hankering for some good, old-fashioned Greek tragedy. But they don’t make ‘em like they used to, so Dionysus traipses through the underworld past zombies, farting frogs, and proto-scientologist religious nuts to bring back one of the great dead playwrights. Dionysus has two tragedians compete for the distinction of best poet. Naturally, since they’re theater people, they proceed with humble civility to tear one another’s eyes out. The winner gets resurrected (a pretty sweet deal).

(Aristophanes, Frogs)

8. The Grump: Clint Eastwood from Gran Tornio meets Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents

Sostratos is a plucky kid who falls hard for a cute girl with no name (because this is ancient Greece, so who cares, amirite?). The only problem is the in-law from hell, Knemon. Knemon would knock a guy’s teeth out for stepping on his lawn, let alone making out with his daughter. Knemon eventually decides Sostratos seems nice enough, but Sostratos’ dad, who’s loaded, gets antsy about his son marrying a poor girl. Sostratos basically tells him, “you didn’t build that!” (line 801), then everyone dances around celebrating Obamanomics. Truly. This is how you can tell this play is a fantasy.

(Menander, The Grump)

9. Wasps: Liar Liar meets Twelve Angry Men

Wasps is an utterly bizarre play about the finer points of Athenian jury service. Unsurprisingly, jokes on this subject don’t hold up so great. The main argument is about whether jury duty is a good way to spend an afternoon. The answer turns out to be no (obviously), and the case is proven with evidence from sterling witnesses such as a bowl and some adorable dogs. Meanwhile, the chorus scolds the audience for not appreciating the utter genius of Aristophanes’ last play. With plots like this, it’s impossible to imagine why they weren’t lining up around the block for tickets. Philistines.

(Aristophanes, Wasps)

10. The Mother-in-Law: Knocked Up meets Unfaithfully Yours

Poor Pamphilus. He’s like, so in love with this one girl, Bacchis, but the thing is he kinda sorta accidentally got drunk and then impregnated this other girl, Philumena. Whoops! How in the world did that happen?! Luckily it turns out Pamphilus’ folks want him to marry Philumena anyway. But he doesn’t know she’s pregnant, so when he comes back from a trip one day to find her straight-up having a baby, he understandably gets a little concerned. Thankfully it all gets cleared up in time, and everyone is remarkably nonchalant about the whole hilarious misunderstanding.

(Terence, The Mother-in-Law)

Did you get all that? And if so, can you explain it to me? There’s plenty of room in the comments: if these plots seem crystal clear to you, or if you think other ancient comedies are even more absurd, let it be known! There’s still a ton of Aristophanes and plenty of Plautus and Terence left — any fans of the Thesmophoriazusae in the house? If you’re particularly into Amphitryon, go ahead and make your case. And tune in next week for more ancient laughs: this is part two in an ongoing series. Last week it was dumb, raunchy jokes from 2500 years ago. Next week it’ll be dumb, raunchy jokes from last month or so. Don’t touch that dial!