This is no joke. The world’s oldest joke, written on an ancient Sumerian tablet in cuneiform, was as relevant 1900 years before the birth of Christ as it is today. That is a fact. This is the joke.
Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did NOT fart in her husband’s lap.
Sumerian, ~1900 BC
I myself have never been married. But I have dated a fair share of beautiful, elegant, bright women. And almost every single one of them has done this with me. It is amazing to me how, though the delivery and subject material may have changed over the years, what our ancestors found funny thousands of years ago is still what we laugh about today. The sheer timelessness of good comedy is something that transcends not only time and generations but borders, religions, and cultures.
How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of women dressed in fishing nets down the Nile and invite the pharaoh to go fishing.
Egyptian, ~1600 BC
Most jokes and comedies, regardless of era, have stuck to the same variants of delivery and method. The common question (setup) and response (punchline) form is evident in ancient Egyptian as much as it is evident in contemporary stand-up routines. I think this is largely because of how simply and naturally this flows in any language or time. By asking a seemingly inane or innocuous question, we are setting the stage. Calling on our shared common histories and experiences we create assumptions and expectations about where this exchange will go. By the time the punchline is delivered we are thrown off guard by the response and it is that unpredictability and surprise that creates the joke. We are not only acknowledging and utilizing the bonds that connect us, we are then outwitting our own expectations to create the witty, the sly, and the humorous.
The origins of ancient comedy, as far back as the 400s BC were not necessarily so noble in scale. ‘Old Comedy’, plays from ancient Greece typically from the 480s to 400s BC, were often just chock full of bawdy and raunchy jokes about genitalia and scat (yes I said scat). Aristophanes, who remains the most influential and most preserved writer of that period, elevated this just a tiny bit by using this absolutely raw and racy literary form to mercilessly lampoon and skewer his political and literary rivals. What Aristophanes capitalized on, and what we still now realize today, is that if you can effectively disguise political, professional, or personal attacks in what seems to be satire or parody, you can get away with delivering even the harshest of messages.
Laughter naturally lowers the defenses so even if you were the target, either you are so overcome with the humor of it all that you take it in good nature or the disguise is so complete that everyone else but you is aware of every jab. Some of the best political messages have been delivered in effective satire. Stephen Colbert made an entire successful show based on his satirical portrayal of a die-hard conservative Republican on his Colbert Report. Some of my favorite segments are when he invites Republicans or other targets for interviews and they are completely unaware that he is in character. Quite frankly this has to be the only reason why he was invited to speak at the White House Correspondents dinner and ‘shocked’ everyone when he started roasting President Bush.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of ancient comedy to modern comedy are the archetypal stereotypes that now define the very formulas of comedy. Later Greek comics like Menander and Plautus created a catalog of characters that are still evident in western comedies. You have your ‘angry old man’, your overbearing parent who tries to thwart his child’s romantic ambitions with someone he deems unworthy, the prostitute or thief or someone else of questionable moral standing who hides a heart of gold, or the buffoon who is rough, rude, and arrogant. While you may not know of any characters from Menander or Plautus, you most likely have seen various iterations of these same stock characters in modern comedies. In fact most modern sitcoms and comedic films are what you would call ‘character comedies’ versus ‘situation comedies’. The difference is that while ‘situation comedies’ rely on absurd environments and circumstances to create humor when thrust upon seemingly normal and standard characters (think Seinfeld), ‘character comedies’ create an ensemble of outlandish and exaggerated caricatures of various human follies and watches them try to tackle normal interactions and events (think Big Bang Theory).
A sharp witted observer witnesses a slow runner and says ‘I know exactly what that man needs’. ‘What’s that?’ the runner’s sponsor asks earnestly. ‘A horse.’
Greek, ~400 AD
Two of my favorite recent sitcoms, Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, are great studies of ‘character comedies’. You have your stereotypical dumb blond who also plays the prostitute who turns out to be hiding a gentle and noble compassion, the foreigner in strange lands, the overbearing and neurotic black sheep, the seeming ‘every man’, the patriarch who tries to assert authority but is constantly subverted, the gay couple (which is a modern character trope to be fair), the bumbling naive idiot, the sex appeal, all hyperbole of real life but done so well that we can relate to each and enjoy watching the various aspects of ourselves and our personalities try to navigate every day life.
I think there’s a reason why comedy has, out of all the forms of literature and theatre, remained so prevalent and so timeless. Why we constantly study old and new humor and find such striking resemblances. Humor is honest. Forced laughter is so obviously forced and unnatural. Our laughing faces, much like our scared faces, cannot be controlled or restrained. Laughter is an involuntary and immediate response to a situation we find humorous. So the more we understand what immediately affects us, the closer we get to understanding what connects all of us, past and present, east and west, young and old. Laughter makes friends of enemies and strangers. We haven’t yet evolved so far that we cannot still find humor in the same things our ancient ancestors did. And to prove it, I will leave you with the oldest recorded joke in British history, dating back to the 10th century.
What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before?
Anglo-Saxon, ~900 AD
Man: 87 Loneliness: 20