I came across an amazing statistic recently from the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. “a private, non-profit organization”. According to the PRB, over the last 50,000 years there have been 107 billion people who have lived on this planet, or about 15 times the 7 billion alive right now, when I was writing this (on a Saturday morning). And amazingly, in all that time, and all those people, nobody has ever told a new joke; not one, not ever. Oh, there are plenty of jokes you haven't heard before, but, trust me, none of them are new.
The oldest known written joke is Sumerian, because they were the oldest writers that we know of, and it is at least 5, 000 years old. “Name something that has never happened in all of history. A young wife who did not fart on her husband's lap”. Now, somebody took the time, 4,000 years ago, to notch that one up in cuneiform on a clay tablet and bake it into a book. Today you would have to write a script, find the money. gather a crew, light and decorate the set, hire the actors, rehearse, tape and edit the result, and then title it something like “Bridesmaids”, all to capture that magical moment of discovery when the young couple realize there is nothing they can hide or have to hide from each other. And, of course, its also a fart joke – and those are always good for a laugh.
Then there was the ancient Egyptian riddle. “A virgin and a slut attend a beer bash. The slut just has a good time, but the virgin gets pregnant. How is this possible? The answer (drum roll): Auxiliary Forces.” (Ba-dum-bump.) Okay, you have to know that auxiliary forces are sort of local yokels, farmers usually, badly disciplined and...oh, just trust me. Tell this joke to any ancient Egyptian and they will laugh themselves to death.
Goes another old joke, “How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?” And the answer is, “You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile, and then you urge the pharaoh to go fishing.” That was even an old joke in the Old Kingdom. According to the gossip Herodotus, Khufu, who ruled Egypt about 5,000 years ago, got really drunk one night and ordered his spendthrift daughter to go into a temple and have sex with any man who would pay. She did, but she only asked each man for a small stone. And when she rose from her task the next morning she had built her father's Great Pyramid. That was maybe the first political joke, 150 feet long on a side.
I know where we got the idea that we were the first generation in history who were funny. Nothing an bury a punch line faster than an archaeologist. It's the degree – the suffix “ology” means to kill the joke. Did you hear the one about the unlucky eunuch who developed a hernia? That perfectly good joke survived being buried for two thousand years before a graduate student dug it up, dusted it off and handed it over to her professor who sucked the life out of it and then published it in his own name. I'll bet you if every school of archeology and anthropology had a resident comic, our view of history would be a lot funnier.
By the way, there is an ancient contemporary religious version in the Torah, but in this one the rich guy is a schlemiel named Jonah, whom Yahweh had chosen to be a prophet. Why would the Hebrew god pick a schmuck to be a prophet? Because Yahweh has a sense of humor. Unfortunately the scribes who wrote this one down did not. And having survived the storm in the belly of a whale, this mumbling wishy-washy nobody Jonah manages to convert the entire population of the Assyrian town of Nineveh. That is hilarious, but nobody laughs at this joke, because that is what happens when you take all the humor out of religion - it's just not funny anymore!
Then, of course. there are the jokes that read like a letters to a Latin language Penthouse magazine; an ambitious young man invited two MLF's to his house for an afternoon diversion, and on arrival ordered his servant to “Mix a drink for one of these lovely ladies, and have sex with the other, if she wants to." And both women immediately blurted out, “I'm not thirsty.” Or consider the rich old man who bought a stupid servant boy to attend for his wife while he was out of town. Returning from a business trip a week later he was greeted by the boy. “And how are you getting on” asked the master. A big grin spread over the boy's face. “Oh, Master” he said, “very well. Saturday night I had sex with one of the dancing girls, and when I took off her mask, your wife was inside.”(Ba-dum-bump.)
For something over a thousand years the Greeks had a comedy-industrial complex, which allowed the sheep herders to rule the known funny world. Four hundred years before Christ, the father of Alexander the Great, Phillip of Macedonia, paid the Athenian Friar's Club to send him a collection of their best gags. But,
unfortunately the collection did not survive, perhaps because in 336 B.C. E., the assassins got tired of waiting for Phillip to die laughing, and they had him was murdered. Eight hundred years later Greek culture produced the epitome of funny for another thousand years, the comedy equivalent of the Parthenon, when that great comedy duo of Hierocles and Philagrius produced the oldest surviving joke book in the world, “Philogelos”, or the “Joke Lover”. There may have been better stuff written in the the post ancient world, but I get the feeling that the notation, A. D. actually means A.D.F., “After the Death of Funny.” Jokes wouldn't be this good again until the Catskill Bosch belt.
To the post-ancient Romans, the Thracian city of Abdera was the equivalent of the Yiddish comedy capital of Minsk a' Pinsk – every resident was an idiot, for the purposes of a joke. Goes one - a worried Abderite mother calls in an astrologer to cast a horoscope for her ailing son. He assures the desperate woman that her boy will live happily and productively for many years to come, She thanks the prophet and then promises “Come around tomorrow and I will pay you.” But the astrologer is indignant. “I don't do business that way,” he tells the woman. “If your son dies tonight, I could lose my fee.” Or - after many years two of old friends accidentally meet on a Abdera street corner. The first man says, “Thank the gods, Alexios had told me, you had died years ago.” The second man says, “Well, you can see, I am very much alive.” And the first man agrees but adds, “Of course, Alexios was always more reliable than you.”
An Abderian man complains to a trader that a recently purchased slave was a lemon, having dropped dead on the way home from the slave lot. “Well” says the trader, “He was alive while I owned him.” (Ba-dum-bump.) A local merchant saw a donkey counting to ten with his hoof, and was so impressed by the money changing hands he decided to teach his own ass a trick. After some thought about which trick would draw the largest paying crowds, he set about teaching his donkey not to eat. Three weeks later the broken hearted merchant explained to his wife, “And just when I had taught him not to eat, he died” Two thousand years later, this would be re-written as the "Dead Parrot Sketch".
Even Medieval Christian monks, shivering in their isolated monasteries, praying for forgiveness right up 'til the Vikings showed up to slaughter them, even these poor filthy religious louts told the same jokes we do today. This one made the rounds of monasteries thirteen hundred years ago; question - what man can kill another man without being punished? Answer; a doctor. Of course this was before the Sisters of Charity became a For-Profit Health Insurance Provider, which is the modern punch line of the same joke.
It is a sad fact that not only have humans not gotten smarter in the last 10,000 years, we haven't gotten funnier, ether. And that is the real joke on all of us.
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