Began around Tuscany in 1550, but obviously based on the ancient comedies of Rome (by writers like Plautus) interpreted through bands of touring actors. A nonliterary form, it depended not on writers but on improvised dialogue in standard scenarios and well-rehearsed lazzi (comic routines). The shows contained stock character types such as Pantalone, the ineffective patriarch, Dottore, the educated busybody, Arlechinno, the clever servant-- each with a distinctive costume and half-mask. The stories usually centered on themes of sex, greed, and status, and the improvisation allowed plenty of room for references to topical events and local persons.

By the 17th century, the form had spread across Europe. The work of playwrights like Moliere, Ben Jonson, and Lope de Bega reflect the influence of the commedia. The stock characters and topical references continued to evolve into forms such as Punch and Judy shows, vaudeville and sitcoms.