Rude Talk in Athens: Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer's Journey through Greece

Mark Haskell Smith

In the 5th Century BCE, the city-state of Athens gave every male citizen the right to voice their opinions and participate in civic life, but this first blush of democracy resulted in a mob of drunken Athenians parading gigantic phalli through the streets as they gleefully hurled insults at each other.

It was from this wine-sodden revel that comedy was born—a complicated and messy origin that grows only more relevant in light of our democracy's current struggles. Twice a year, thousands of Athenians would attend festivals that turned comedic writing into a fierce battle for fame, money, and laughably large trophies.  While the tragedies earned artistic respect, it was the comedies—the raunchy jokes, vulgar innuendo, outrageous invention, and barbed political commentary—that captured the imagination of the city. 

The comedic writers feuded openly, insulting one another within their plays, each production more inventive and outlandish than the last, as they tried to top the otherand win first prize. Of these writers, only the work of Aristophanes has survived. It’s through his plays that we know about the other playwrights who were his competition: Cratinus, the great lush; Eupolis, the copycat; and Ariphrades, the sexual deviant. These insults were no laughing matter as being on the sharp end of one of Aristophanes’ jokes could destroy a reputation. It might have been the golden age of Democracy, but for comic playwrights, it was the age of Rude Talk. 

Through conversations with historians, politicians, and other writers, the always witty and effusive Smith embarks on a personal mission (bordering on obsession) exploring the life of one of these unknown writers, and how comedy challenged the patriarchy, the military, and the powers that be, both then and now. A comic writer himself and author of many books and screenplays, Smith also looks back at his own career, his love for the uniquely dynamic city of Athens, and what it means for a writer to leave a legacy.