[Editor’s note: this is another never-before-seen effort from Dr Baldwin; we are again grateful that he thought this was an appropriate venue! As always, yours truly takes responsibility for any typos or other editorial negligences which may accrue.]
EGGHEADS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR YOLKS
(As Adlai Stevenson once proclaimed)
Two mythical heroes, Palamedes and Rhadamanthys, were said to have invented jesting, which is about as daft as the claim of the tenth-century Byzantine dictionary Suda that Helen of Troy’s slave-girl Astyanassa invented all the sexual positions, or the student essay that informed me the Egyptians invented the horse in 1800 BC.
Poor Astyanassa. Her name means “ she’s unable to inspire erections.” – those who can’t, teach.
Earlier civilizations were already chuckling. According to a BBC website news item, the world’s oldest joke is a bit of Sumerian (c. 1900 BC) toilet humour: “ Something which has never happened since time immemorial: a young wife did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
Followed by this thigh-slapper from Egypt (c. 1600 BC): “ How do you entertain a bored Pharaoh? Sail a boatload of young girls dressed only in fishnets down the Nile and invite him to catch a fish.”
Another claimant is Isaiah 37.36: “ The Angel of the Lord smote a hundred and four score and five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians and when they arose early in the morning, Behold, they were all dead corpses.”
In fourth-century BC Athens, there was a Comedians Club. This popular Group of Sixty met to hone their wit in the Temple of Heracles. Alas, we have no specimens of their jests, but do know six of their names, including one nicknamed ‘ The Lobster’ – doubtless a prickly character. No less a fan than King Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) of Macedon paid this sniggering sixty the enormous sum of one talent for a copy of their joke book.
Roman comic playwright Plautus twice alludes to such collections. Scholars Quintilian and Macrobius both attest to a plethora in the early and later Roman empires. The ultimate assemblage was probably that of Melissus, a favourite professor of emperor Augustus, who put together 150 volumes of jokes. Macrobius collected Augustus’ own witticisms together with those of his daughter Julia. Several authors paraded Cicero’s rib-ticklers as well as those of (to us) such lesser lights as Hellenistic harpist Stratonicus and Lucian’s cracker-barrel philosopher Demonax.
One Christian wag, Bishop Sisinnius had his bon mots collected. Feeble stuff, e.g: “ Why do you bathe twice a day? Because I can’t bathe thrice.” In his article ‘ Is Wittiness Un-Christian?’, P. W. Van der Horst generated much debate, provoked by some Early Church Fathers’ contention that Jesus never smiled.
The sole surviving joke book is the Philogelos (Laughter-Lover). Its oldest manuscript is in the Pierpont Morgan Library. It contains 265 jokes, some recycled from section to section, classified by victim under several headings. It is attributed to the otherwise unknown pair Hierocles and Philagrios – the ancient Rowan and Martin? Double authorship is very rare in classical literature. Its date is equally elusive. Joke 62 refers to emperor Philip’s Millennial Games of AD 248. Number 76 about the Serapeum temple in Alexandria cannot post-date its destruction in AD 391. Other jokes are much older chestnuts. The Greek contains several late linguistic features, including Latinisms. There is no formal Christian presence, albeit some have detected elements thereof, with chronological consequences, pointing mistakenly – the Byzantines had no objections to ‘ obscenity’ – to the relative absence of blue jokes. Its manuscripts, plus a muddled quotation from the twelfth-century polymath John Tzetzes, suggest a Byzantine popularity.
Philogelos may have been an intended manual for wannabe gagsters. It has scored one modern success in British stand-up comedian Tom Bowen’s performance based entirely on it, immortalized on YouTube.
Between Byzantium and Bowen, the Philogelos has other progeny, for example Scoggin’s Tudor Jests, sometimes considered a Shakespearean source, and Joe Mlller’s 1739 Jest Book. No surprise that Samuel Johnson published a selection of its jokes two years later. And, a shame that the plan of his contemporary, Classicist Richard Porson, to show all Miller’s jokes came from Philogelos was addled in the egg.
Modern killjoys will condemn many items as ‘ politically incorrect’. I ignore such nonsense, though do blench at number 121 about a crucified runner. There’ll be no twaddle either about theories of humour: people know what makes them laugh and why.
Neo-conservative philosopher Leo Strauss rightly denounced “ the loathsome task of explaining a joke,” which didn’t stop Robert Browning ( Classicist, not the poet) from some outlandish Freudian and Marxist exegeses of items involving inherited wealth.
Now, a mini-Porsonian demonstration of humour’s Universality. Wearing my academic cap, I must wincingly disclose that Philogelos’ most ridiculed butt is the scholastikos, variously translated as ‘pedant’ (Johnson), ‘ absent-minded professor’ (American Albert Rapp), ‘egg-head’ (my own 1983 annotated translation):
The ethnic humour involves cities rather than countries. A typical joke has a swimmer dive under water to avoid getting wet when it rains – very Monty Python.
A talkative barber asking an egghead how he wanted his hair cut was told “ In silence.”
This was a golden oldie, attributed by Plutarch to King Archelaus of Macedon. It is also a fake golden newie: a British newspaper credited politician Lord Hailsham – my protest letter went unpublished. Barber-customer situations are, of course, standard Dagwood.
Two father-hating eggheads agree to kill each other’s fathers. Oedipal jealousy, opined Browning. The real interest is its anticipation of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
An egghead forgot a friend’s letter asking him to buy some books. So, he explained, “ I never got that letter you sent.” Here’s the origin of our Irish Bull, named for Obadiah Bull in Henry VII’s reign. It crops up in Larry Wilde’s The Last Official Irish Joke Book.
Gazing at twins, an egghead remarked,” This one doesn’t look as much like that one as that one like this one.” Also in Wilde, rivalled by a British soccer commentator’s “ At times he looks almost like his double.”
The pillow joke in which an egghead tries to soften an earthenware jar by stuffing it with feathers lived on in the Byzantine bishop-scholar Eustathius, hence to Wilde.
When an alcoholic, while drinking, was told his wife had died, he called out, “ Bartender, some dark wine, please.” In Wilde, a newly-widowed drunk asks for black olives in her martini.
No one paid attention to an egghead fallen down a well, so he climbed out and ordered somebody to fetch him a ladder. Wilde has a similar one about a man who lost a penny in a dark street and went to look for it in a lighter place, a joke I also remember from the old BBC radio comedy The Goon Show.
“ That slave you sold me has just died!” “ Well, he never did that when I owned him.”
This exchange between egghead and shop-keeper prefigures the immortal Monty Python ‘ Dead Parrot’ sketch.
Having bought some trousers too tight to put on, the egghead solved the problem by depilating himself – Fashionistas, take note! Also makes me recall the old Brooke Shields commercial ‘ There’s Nothing Between Me And my Jeans.’
An egghead ill in bed was hungry. Since food never seemed to arrive, he ordered the sundial to be moved into his bedroom. This variant on the classical jokes on gluttons whose bellies are their clocks is paralleled by the likes of Dagwood and Garfield, also the
British children’s comics ‘ Beano’ and ‘ Dandy’.
Seeing his tenants were having a good time, their spiteful landlord evicted them. Peanuts devotees will recognize this as prototype of Lucy’s typical behaviour.
An idiot teacher suddenly looked over to the dunce’s corner and shouted “ Dionysius is misbehaving there!” When another boy objected that Dionysius had not yet arrived, the teacher replied, “ Well, when he gets here then.” Boissonade, the 1848 Swiss editor of
Philogelos produced an identical item from local folk-lore.
A man with bad breath kissed his wife, murmuring “ My Aphrodite, my Hera.” Turning her head, she muttered “ Phew, Zeus” – this depends upon the Greek pun O Zeus/ Ozeus, O Zeus, You Stink. This is one of a dead of bad breath jokes, no doubt a common affliction, given ancient love of garlic and onions and rudimentary dental hygiene – poet Catullus gibes at a man who brushed his teeth with urine. The emperor Marcus Aurelius optimistically recommended philosophic understanding as the best way to cope.
A shaggy-dog story beginning ‘ An egghead, a bald man, and a barber’ is the only joke with such a beginning, anticipating our (e.g.) ‘ An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman” – the Greek punchline is sadly missing.
I ‘sex up’ my finale with one of Philogelos’ very few carnal funnies. A Young man said to his randy wife, “ Shall we eat or make love?” “ Whatever you like,” she replied, “ We haven’t any bread.” This one has recurred both as a sixteenth-century French epigram and as a Robbie Burns ballad, ‘ Supper Is Na Ready’ in his The Merry Muses of Caledonia:
Roseberry to his lady says,
My hinnie and my succour
O shall we do the thing you ken,
Or shall we take our supper?
Wi’ modest face, sae fu’ o’ grace
Replied the bonny lady:
My noble lord, do as you please,
But supper is na ready.
So, Philogelos does not get off Scot-free…