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2019-11-09

A Brief History of Jokes


It has been said that everyone must know at least one good joke. Whether to lighten the mood, make people laugh outright, or poke fun at a particular group or stereotype, jokes have presumably been part of all civilisations throughout recorded history. Because jokes no doubt preceded the era of written language, and were certainly passed down as part of oral traditions, pinpointing the time of the earliestjokes in human history is clearly impossible.


The oldest extantwritten collection of jokes is the Philogelos, which literally translates to “The Laughter Lover.” Written in Greek, it contains 264 entries, though some jokes occur in the manuscript more than once with subtle changes. It is a compendium of jokes that are believed to be representative of humour in the years leading up to the 4th century AD. Though scholars offer contradictory dates for when the text was compiled, American classics professor William Berg maintains that the language it contains is consistent with that used in the 4th century AD. Its jokes are categorised by subjects, such as intellectuals, fools, drunkards, and people with bad breath. Thus, they are primarily concerned with poking fun at stereotypes or people that have undesirable attributes. In one example, an intellectual took a trip to his country estate. Once there, he asked the farm workers if the water from the well was fit for consumption. They replied that it was, and that his own parents used to drink from the well. The intellectual, in amazement, said, “How long were their necks, that they could drink from something so deep!”


Little is known about how jokes evolved in Europe during the Dark Ages, but Medieval humour was well represented in the Arab world. According to historian Abdul Ali, this aspect of Arab culture has been summarily dismissed by western scholars who mostly represent the Arabs only as serious cultivators of knowledge or fervent worshippers. This is despite the numerous Arabic volumes that are devoted wholly to humour and the many others that abound with jokes. Among the most famous characters in these works was the mythical Nasreddin Hodja, a donkey-riding figure who, much like the Spanish literary character in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, was often portrayed as an imbecile. In one tale, Nasreddin had lost his ring in the living room of his home, but his wife later found him looking for it outside. When she asked him why he was searching in the courtyard, he replied that the living room was too dark and that he had gone outside to look for it where there was more light!Many such humourousOriental jokes and folktales found their way to Europe during the period of Arab conquest, particularly in Spain, but it was not until the Renaissance that jokes truly became prominent again in European literature.


First publicly circulated in 1438, PoggioBracciolini’sLiber Facetiarum, or Facetiae, became the most popular, and notorious, jokebook of the Renaissance. Its popularity and notoriety both stemmed from its vulgar content; the work had apolarisingimpact because people typically either found ithilarious or offensive.The joke material frequently included such irreverent topics as the corruption of the clergy, the sexual appetite of humans, and the ignorance of the peasants. One can imagine that it was the type of coffee table book that had to be quickly hidden away when certain guests, who might vehemently object to its obscenity, arrived. Nonetheless, Poggio himself dismissed such objections.As manuscript historian Lotte Hellinga has pointed out, Poggio seemed oblivious to criticism on moral grounds yet was keenly offended when someone critiqued his command of theLatin language. And according to Poggio, the content did not originate in his mind. He merely made a collective record of the jokes and funny stories exchanged by papal scribes and secretaries during his time working among them. In the opinion of Carol Meale, it adds to the comedic effect that the indecent jokes in the Facetiaeoriginally emanated from the mouths of highly educated and respected men in the papal administration.


In modern times, the publication of joke books has continued, as has the telling of jokes in informal settings, but one of the unique aspects of modern joke-telling occurs on stage in front of a live audience. Modern stand-up comedy emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries but really did not flourish until the 20th century. In Britain, it first came to prominence in music halls but by the 1970s, it had retreated to private social clubs called working men’s clubs. In contrast, American stand-up comedy was mainly performed innightclubs and resortsuntil the 1970s, when some comedians became so popular that they took their acts to large arenas and amphitheatres.


This period also saw the invention of the comedy club, which was unique in that it devoted the space inside its walls almost exclusively to comedy and had multiple acts back to back. Though there are arguments about the identity of the original comedy club, KliphNesteroff suggests that it was Pips, which opened in New York City in 1963. Pips was the playground of many budding stars, such as David Brenner, who became famous through his appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. His trademark was introducing jokes with sentences beginning with “Did you ever notice. . .?” and this formulaic practise has been emulated by many in stand-up comedy. Jerry Seinfeld is an obvious example as evidenced in his many jokes with the same form, such as:“Did you ever notice a lot of butlers are named Jeeves? I think when you name a baby Jeeves, you’ve pretty much mapped out his future. Not much chance he’s gonna be a hitman.”