Old Comedy (archaia) is the first period of the ancient Greek comedy, according to the canonical division by the Alexandrian grammarians. The most important Old Comic playwright is Aristophanes - whose works, with their daring political commentary and abundance of sexual innuendo, effectively define the genre today.
The origins of the Old Comedy were traced by Aristotle to the komos or celebratory festival processions of ancient Greece, and the phallic songs that accompanied them. Although the earliest Athenian comedy, from the 480s to 440s BC, is almost entirely lost, it is clear that comedy had already crystallised into a highly structured form, with the chorus playing a central role. 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: he was noted in antiquity both for a mastery of plot and for the obscene vehemence of his attacks on Pericles.
Aristophanes satirized and lampooned the most prominent personalities and institutions of his time, as can be seen, for example, in his scurrilous portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and in his racy anti-war farce Lysistrata. Aristophanes was only one of a large number of comic poets, however, working in Athens in the late 5th century BC; his biggest rivals were Hermippus and Eupolis. Classical literary criticism placed Aristophanes somewhere between the harshness of Cratinus and the smoothness of Eupolis.
All the Old Comedy writers worked within a highly structured format - parados, agon, and parabasis - which paradoxically offered maximum scope for improvisatory flights of fancy. Song, dance, costume, and chorus all played important roles, as did the parody of the 'senior' drama, tragedy. Possibly due to the influence of tragedy was the important role of a heroic figure in Aristophanic comedy: as Northrop Frye put it, "In Aristophanes there is usually a central figure who constructs his (or her) own society in the teeth of strong opposition". The diminished role of the protagonist (and chorus) in his latest works marks a point of transition to the Middle comedy.
The Old Comedy subsequently influenced later European writers such as Ben Jonson, Racine, and Goethe. Also, François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire may have derived elements from it. Western writers took particular inspiration from Aristophanes' disguising of political attacks as buffoonery. Old Comedy displays similarities to modern-day political satires such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and the televised buffoonery of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live.
George Bernard Shaw was profoundly influenced by Aristophanian comedy-writing. According to Robert R. Speckhard, "like Shaw, Aristophanes wrote comedies of ideas, and, though one finds no evidence that Shaw is indebted to Aristophanes, it is clear that in facing much the same dramatic problem that Aristophanes faced, Shaw came up with much the same solution. Because the comic machinery is easier to spot in Aristophanes (where there is no attempt, as in Shaw, to disguise it with any surface realism), what Aristophanes has done becomes a helpful point of reference from which to study what Shaw has done."