Jul 31

The World’s Oldest Jokes

Never thought I’d see the day where scholarly types would set about unearthing the world’s oldest joke. I just didn’t think it was scholarly enough. But humour is a very important part of all our lives and culture. And to all intents and purposes it has been for all time. Or, if you’re Brian Blessed, “aaaaaaaaaaaaalll tiyyyyyyyyme.”

This was research conducted by the University of Wolverhampton on behalf of the English comedy TV channel Dave, where they have The Top 10 Oldest Jokes.

I actually figured the oldest joke would’ve been when God made Adam. If that wasn’t hilarious enough, poor Adam probably would’ve looked between his legs and figured he had a very small third arm; “Er Lord, how can I eat with that?”

I’ll be here all week…

Turns out then oldest record joke dates back to around 1900BC and was a toilet joke. So it seems that senses of humour really do go in cycles. It was from the ancient Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq. Okay here goes. Get ready for it:

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Laugh? I nearly did. Then there’s an ancient Egyptian gag from around 1600BC which was about a Pharaoh called King Snofru (seriously? – ed). This one was number two on the list. And that one goes:

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.”

Mmm… maybe… I’m sure that there’s some sort of sexual innuendo lost in the translation of that one. Or maybe it’s all in the delivery…

The oldest British jokes dates back to the 10th Century and shows that the Anglo-Saxons had a love of Carry On-style humour:

“What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before?
A key.”

I can almost hear a loud Sid James laugh accompanying that one. In fact, it raised a small chuckle from me. But I’m not convinced the other two were even remotely chuckleworthy.

The difficulty is that the first two of these jokes don’t really convey the sense of humour of those civilisations. I think it would be easy for us to completely dismiss the jokes as being crap and assume that the people who would’ve uttered them didn’t have as sophisticated a sense of humour as we do today.

But I don’t think that’s probably true.

I think a lot has been lost in translation. The jokes are too wordy and don’t have the brevity which Shakespeare said was the “soul of wit”.

I understand why they are wordy, because they have been translated and the meaning has had to be conveyed for the modern reader.

Perhaps to make these work, one would have to go back the original and re-translate them with a comedian standing by to help out. Or maybe translate them from, say, ancient Sumerian into modern Arabic and then translated into English.

Although, there’s bound to be even more of a loss in translation during such a process. I guess any re-working that can be done of these gags, takes away from how close they are to the original version.

But saying that gags are always being re-worked and re-vised that’s part and parcel of humour and comedy.

So I thought I’d re-write one of the gags off the top of me ‘ead:

“What’s long and hard and likes poking holes? A key”.

Or maybe:

“What’s long and hangs between a man’s legs? A key.”

Fundamentally, I think that ancient punchline works. I just wasn’t sure abot the set-up. To be honest I’m not sure about this new one either, but in the spirit of comedic experimentation in which this blog was created, I thought I’d give it a shot.

The other problem is that we don’t tend to wear keys on the outside hanging between our legs any more. So the observation doesn’t really work.

My first version omits the reference to “a man’s thigh”, which may or may not be a key element to the joke. I’m not entirely sure it is an important element. I think the new set-up still works. (Note: that I’m not judging that by how it reads on the page, but on how I imagine it might play to a person).

The second version implies a penis a little more than the first version.

What’s also not clear is if these jokes were from the top comedians of the day, or just half remebered from some ancient dude down the local hostelry. It seems we’ll never know.

For the sake of completeness, I’ve managed to source the remaining jokes from the Dave website. They are listed below in the numerical order that they appear on that site.

I’ve added a few comments after them in italics. I guess, in a way, I’m heckling these ancient jokes, which doesn’t seem right somehow:

3. Three ox drivers from Adab were thirsty: one owned the ox, the other owned the cow and the other owned the wagon’s load. The owner of the ox refused to get water because he feared his ox would be eaten by a lion; the owner of the cow refused because he thought his cow might wander off into the desert; the owner of the wagon refused because he feared his load would be stolen. So they all went. In their absence the ox made love to the cow which gave birth to a calf which ate the wagon’s load. Problem: Who owns the calf?! (1200 BC)

Never mind the calf, where’s the bloomin’ punchline?

4. A woman who was blind in one eye has been married to a man for 20 years. When he found another woman he said to her, “I shall divorce you because you are said to be blind in one eye.” And she answered him: “Have you just discovered that after 20 years of marriage!?” (Egyptian circa 1100 BC)

Relationship gags have been around for a while it seems.

5. Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his real name is nobody. When Odysseus instructs his men to attack the Cyclops, the Cyclops shouts: “Help, nobody is attacking me!” No one comes to help. (Homer. The Odyssey 800 BC)

Surely that should be “Help, nobody is being attacked!” Which is the punchline.

6. Question: What animal walks on four feet in the morning, two at noon and three at evening? Answer: Man. He goes on all fours as a baby, on two feet as a man and uses a cane in old age (Appears in Oedipus Tyrannus and first performed in 429 BC)

I know this one from my days doing school plays. Don’t remember this one being a gag. It’s more like proverb. So I didn'[t fall of my chair.

7. Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey – his purse is what restrains him (Egyptian, Ptolemaic Period 304 BC – 30 BC)

Nope, still on my chair…

8. Augustus was touring his Empire and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to himself. Intrigued he asked: “Was your mother at one time in service at the Palace?” “No your Highness,” he replied, “but my father was.” (Credited to the Emperor Augustus 63 BC – 29 AD)

Not bad. Not bad…

9. Wishing to teach his donkey not to eat, a pedant did not offer him any food. When the donkey died of hunger, he said “I’ve had a great loss. Just when he had learned not to eat, he died.” (Dated to the Philogelos 4th /5th Century AD)

Er… taxi for the Philogelos!

10. Asked by the court barber how he wanted his hair cut, the king replied: “In silence.” (Collected in the Philogelos or “Laughter-Lover” the oldest extant jest book and compiled in the 4th/5th Century AD)

Wow, that one still works today. Though, admittedly, I didn’t bust a gut. The truth still remains the same.

I guess you could re-work that one today to fit taxi drivers. (Off the top of my head). “The cab driver said: “which route do you want me to take?” So I said: “the quietest.”

You just know that if Milton Berle were still alive today he’d be reaching for his pen…