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The oldest joke in the book - really!
July 16, 2008 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Humor goes back a long way. The oldest recorded joke in the world was told 4,600 years ago to Pharoh Snefru by the magician Djadjamankh: "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," and there's lots more ancient Egyptian humor (some quite dirty) as well. Humor really got rolling with the Greeks, however, and the Philogelos (Laughter Lover) a joke book from the 4th century. A representative joke: “An intellectual was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. ‘Don’t cry,’ he consoled them, ‘I have freed you all in my will'."

In addition to jokes about intellectuals, ethnic stereotypes were popular, but to see the full range of ancient humor, this collection of over 100 ancient jokes from various sources (with explanation and original text) is available, though only in PDF. But be warned that if you travel back to ancient Rome, your Henny Youngman joke could result in severe punishment.

Compared to the documents of Egypt, Rome, and Greece, the lack of the humor in the Bible and Koran has been noted, though some people that there are actually some intentional jokes.

See also this lovely article from the New Yorker on the history of jokes, from this post.
posted by blahblahblah (70 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is really really cool. Thank you.
posted by tkolar at 9:21 AM on July 16, 2008


Be careful logging on to some of these sites....they are not safe and loaded with SPAM.
posted by malter51 at 9:21 AM on July 16, 2008


Good post. Also, jokes and politics often don't mix. The recent story about McCain:

In an appearance before the National League of Cities and Towns in Washington D.C., McCain supposedly asked the crowd if they had heard "the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die?"

The punch line: "When she finally regains consciousness and tries to speak, her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, "Where is that marvelous ape?"

posted by billysumday at 9:24 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."

I laughed so hard I dropped my ankh.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:26 AM on July 16, 2008 [8 favorites]


malter51, which sites are causing you issues? I didn't have any problems (using Firefox with its default popup-blocker).
posted by blahblahblah at 9:35 AM on July 16, 2008


"You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."

Aha! I knew Dane Cook couldn't have thought of something that clever!
posted by aftermarketradio at 9:38 AM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


Almost Relevant
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:44 AM on July 16, 2008


The joke about the slaves is actually kind of funny--sort of a proto-lawyer joke.
posted by EarBucket at 9:44 AM on July 16, 2008


Incredibly, this is the third link to Name of the Rose a MeFi post has made in my mind in as many days.

Also, there's a Teaching Company lecture by Seth Lerer on the History of Comedy that you will definitely want to skip. If there's anyone that can make comedy boring, Lerer is the man.
posted by DU at 9:48 AM on July 16, 2008


What did they use for rimshots before snare drums?
posted by ardgedee at 9:48 AM on July 16, 2008


That McCain joke -- he really said that? I don't think even George Bush's judgment is that bad.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:57 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


A Roman joke recounted by Mary Beard in the latest NYRB:
A royal personage was making a tour through his provinces and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to his own exalted person. He beckoned to him and asked: "Was your mother at one time in service in the Palace?" "No, your Highness," was the reply, "but my father was."
Attributed to Augustus, the first emperor.
posted by russilwvong at 10:07 AM on July 16, 2008 [10 favorites]


The same intellectual said that the tomb of Scribonia was handsome and lavish, but that it had been built on an unhealthy site.

Hah! I do love me a good Scribonia joke.
posted by Kattullus at 10:09 AM on July 16, 2008


That McCain joke -- he really said that? I don't think even George Bush's judgment is that bad.

That's the burden of being a Straight Talker. When a joke with woman hating and vaguely racist undertones pops into your head, you have to tell it like you see it. That's what you learn in the Hanoi Hilton. Life is too short and integrity is too precious to pass on an ape rape joke simply to spare the delicate sensibilities of others.
posted by felix betachat at 10:10 AM on July 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


Crates, . . . when he had seen a young man walking by himself,
asked him what he was doing alone in that place.
“Talking to myself.” To which Crates said, “Watch out, be
very careful: you’re in bad company.”


I have got to remember this to use on some of my older family members next time they give me that answer.
posted by lilkeith07 at 10:13 AM on July 16, 2008


Djadjamankh
I hardly even knew her!
posted by Flunkie at 10:14 AM on July 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


What did they use for rimshots before snare drums?

I don't know. What did they use for rimshots before snare drums?
posted by ob at 10:16 AM on July 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


4.600 years, same tough crowd.

What are you, an audience or a cave/temple/oil painting?
posted by tommasz at 10:18 AM on July 16, 2008


I don't know. What did they use for rimshots before snare drums?

The hollowed-out skulls of their enemies.

ka-thunk!
posted by felix betachat at 10:19 AM on July 16, 2008 [11 favorites]


Laughter is a joy in itself. But sometimes it can be used to achieve some purpose. In the tale of Princess Ahura the girl convinces her father Merneptah to let her marry her brother Naneferkaptah:

I said to him (i.e. her father): "Let me marry the son of a general, and let him marry the daughter of another general, so that our family may increase!" I laughed and Pharaoh laughed.


And as Naneferkaptah (who it is recorded, lived near Memphis*) memorably asked Pharoah, "If I divorce my wife, is she still my sister?"


*I made that up. How the hell would I know?
posted by beelzbubba at 10:20 AM on July 16, 2008


Thanks folks, I'll be here all lunar month. Try the crocodile!
posted by ob at 10:20 AM on July 16, 2008 [9 favorites]


So, are these jokes public domain yet?
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:21 AM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


Or perhaps it was funnier in the original hieroglyphic. (Asp jackal ibis? Wiggly line, ankh, feather!)

Ha!

I don't get the Pharaoh joke. *shrug*

Well, I "get" it I think, I just don't understand what is humorous about it.

the ancient Egyptians were amused by nudity, drunkenness, slapstick and political satire

Primitives! Just a step above animals really.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:24 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


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

Actually, that wasn't the whole joke -- they left out the punchline: "And if he he barely notices the young women but complains that their boat is scaring away the fish, you say, 'Pharaoh, I see that you're in de Nile.'"
posted by pardonyou? at 10:27 AM on July 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


Anecdotes about Diogenes the Cynic:
A man once struck him with a beam, and then said, "Take care." "What," said he, "are you going to strike me again?"

On one occasion he was working with his hands [this means: jerking off] in the market-place, and said, "I wish I could rub my stomach in the same way, and so avoid hunger."

A man once reproached him with his banishment, and his answer was, "You wretched man, that is what made me a philosopher." And when, on another occasion, some one said to him, "The people of Sinope condemned you to banishment," he replied, "And I condemned them to remain where they were."

When asked what wine he liked to drink, he said, "That which belongs to another,"

He was begging once of a very ill-tempered man, and as he said to him, "If you can persuade me, I will give you something;" he replied, "If I could persuade you, I would beg you to hang yourself."
posted by nasreddin at 10:29 AM on July 16, 2008 [7 favorites]


An ancient Greek goes to a tailor with a torn pair of pants.
"Eumenides," he asks?
"I don't know," replies the tailor, "Euripides?"
posted by Bromius at 10:34 AM on July 16, 2008 [16 favorites]


20 shekels, same as in the gathering of huts by the riverside.
posted by DU at 10:34 AM on July 16, 2008 [8 favorites]


I don't know. What did they use for rimshots before snare drums?

Whipping the back of the nearest slave... whh-tish! (Aiiee!)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:57 AM on July 16, 2008


No ancient Egyptian reference to "take my wife.. please", then?
posted by imperium at 11:05 AM on July 16, 2008


This is almost as funny as the assassination of President Affleck in 2028.

What? Too soon?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:16 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Q: What do you get when you cross a lion with a human?

A: I have no idea, but it should use deoderant because it totally sphinx.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:38 AM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


"That's a hell of an act! What do you call it?"
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 11:40 AM on July 16, 2008


אריסטוקרט!

probably a poor translation
posted by Challahtronix at 11:55 AM on July 16, 2008


Oldest English-language joke in the book (courtesy of The Oxford Book of Humourous Prose):

There was in a certain town a widower who wooed a widow to have and wed her as his wife, and at last they were agreed and betrothed. And when a young woman, being servant with the widow, heard thereof she came to her mistress and said to her:
'Alas, mistress, what have you done?'
'Why?' said she.
'I have heard say,' said the maid, 'that ye be betrothed and shall wed so-and-so.'
'And what then?' said the widow.
'Alas,' said the maid, 'I am distressed for you because I have heard say that he is a dangerous man, for he lay so often and knew so much carnally his other wife that she died thereof. I am afraid in case the like thing should befall you.'
The widow thought. She smiled quietly. She said:
'Forsooth, I would not mind being dead, for is this world naught but a vale of tears?'

-William Caxton, The Fables of Aesop (1484)
posted by ormondsacker at 12:09 PM on July 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


ormandsacker, that's actually pretty funny.
posted by blahblahblah at 12:22 PM on July 16, 2008


I also realized I forgot to include the link to Humor in the Bible, which concludes that "there are no jokes in the Bible but there is an abundance of wit and humor," such as:
Samuel said: ‘What then (meh) is this bleating of sheep in my ears?’" The word for "what then" is meh which sounds uncannily like the bleating of sheep.
...clearly, not the high point of Jewish (or even Egyptian) humor.
posted by blahblahblah at 12:28 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


"...and then he said, that's no slave...that's my sister."

I also do beheadings, purifications, and festivals of the dead. Remember the 9 o'clock show is different from the GREAT SLEEP OF OUR GOD RA o'clock, see both.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 12:31 PM on July 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


ormandsacker, that is essentially McCain's ape-rape joke.

Which of course leads to the inevitable question:
Jesus, how old is that guy?!?
posted by yhbc at 12:34 PM on July 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


My favorite joke from the Talmud (actually, from Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, but who's counting - it's still a thousand year old Jewish joke):

Once upon a time, a man was coming to Israel from Babylonia. When he sat down to rest, he saw two birds fighting with each other in the road. One of the birds killed the other, then flew away. It brought back a certain herb, which it placed on the dead bird, and revived it.

The man said, "It would be wonderful if I could get some of that herb! I could take it with me and bring the dead of the Land of Israel back to life!"

[Having found some of the herb], he continued on his way. He saw a dead fox lying by the roadside. The man said, "It would be good to gest this on the dead fox," and touching the fox with the herb, he revived it.

Continuing further on his way, the man reached the Ladders of Tyre [near the border of Israel]. At that place he saw on the road a lion that had been killed. The man said, "It would be good to try this on the lion."

He touched the lion with the herb, and it was brought back to life.

The lion then got up and ate the man.
posted by ericbop at 12:44 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


O.K., I was all prepared to be outraged at McCain's ape-rape joke, but then I read the story and I see that he is alleged to have told this joke in 1986. Yeah, it's a pretty sexist joke, but how would most of us react if someone comes out and says "I heard Barack Obama tell an off-color joke over two decades ago!"?

As for the Egyptian joke in the FPP--how do we know it was a joke? Couldn't it have just been sound policy advice? ("O.K. girls, back into the Nile with you." "What AGAIN with the 'fishing' thing?")
posted by yoink at 12:45 PM on July 16, 2008




Gog: "...SO, THE CHIEF ASKS... 'SO WHAT YOU CALL SELVES?'

AND MAN STAND THERE ALL COVERED IN SHIT BREATHING HARD AND HE SAY;

'THE GREAT MOTHER EARTH GODDESS PRIEST CLASS!""


Ook: " ME NO GET."
posted by tkchrist at 12:58 PM on July 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


No ancient Egyptian reference to "take my wife.. please", then?

The Egyptian version was "Take my sister...Like I did!"
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:39 PM on July 16, 2008


lack of the humor in the Bible

It's not exactly a jokebook (would the world be a better place if we had a "Book of Jokes" to accompany the "Book of Proverbs"?), but the Book of Jonah puts its namesake in clear humorous contrast to the traditional prophets:
  • When God gives Jonah a command, he runs away to avoid it.
  • He takes a snooze while the "heathen" sailors are praying for their lives.
  • As soon as he utters a few words of warning, the entire city of Nineveh--all the way up to the King--instantly believe, repent, and throw on sackcloth and ashes. (Name another prophet--of any sort, any time in history--who had it so easy . . . )
  • After saving Nineveh, Jonah's not pleased but in a snit--he'd been worried that God might be too "gracious and compassionate" towards the Ninevites. Now his worst fears have been realized.
  • In the end it turns out he is more concerned about the welfare of a weed that grew up overnight than a whole city full of his fellow humans.
  • etc.
It's not exactly "ba-da-boom!", but these are all pretty clear humorous reversals of the expectations one has when reading this type of prophetic literature.
posted by flug at 1:56 PM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


yhbc-
Clearly John McCain's version is the cruder, more sexist original, before it was cleaned up for Plantagenent sensibilities.
posted by ormondsacker at 2:06 PM on July 16, 2008


I've posted this before, but here's an oldie. In a medieval Icelandic manuscript there's the following joke (according to an old teacher of mine... oh and from memory):

An Abbot and his young secretary, a monk, were traveling. One night they took lodging in a nunnery. Over the course of the evening the young monk took a shine on a young nun which was reciprocated and they snuck off to the nun's cell. While in there one of the senior nuns susses them out and knocks on their door, summoning them to the hallway. She then drags them towards Abbess's chamber. The senior nun knocks on the door comes out in somewhat of a huff and says: "What's the matter? Why am I disturbed at this late hour?" The senior nun, the secretary and the young nun are dumbstruck. The abbess continues: "Well? Why do you stand there open-mouthed and silent? Why did you rouse me in the middle of the night? Speak!" Finally the secretary speaks: "Mother Superior? Why are you wearing the Abbot's underpants on your head?"
posted by Kattullus at 2:10 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fellow I knew taught first year Greek using Menander for original material. One of the students asked if it was true that M was a comic writer. Yes, yes, leading writer of the New Comedy.

Then why, the student asked, is none of this stuff funny?
posted by IndigoJones at 2:20 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]



Fellow I knew taught first year Greek using Menander for original material. One of the students asked if it was true that M was a comic writer. Yes, yes, leading writer of the New Comedy.

Then why, the student asked, is none of this stuff funny?


You had to be there.
posted by beelzbubba at 2:33 PM on July 16, 2008


Wait, are you telling me these aren't really Carlos Mencia jokes?
posted by Quonab at 3:07 PM on July 16, 2008


Quonab, they're not, but if he sees them, they will be.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:13 PM on July 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


"Asp jackal ibis? Wiggly line, ankh, feather!"

Man, that one kills me every damn time.
posted by miss lynnster at 3:28 PM on July 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


Not to bust your chops, miss l, but Cleopatra told it better.

She's appearing all week at Caesars Palace.
Take my ibis, please.
posted by Opposite George at 4:16 PM on July 16, 2008


It's a little known fact that the ancient Egyptians used small trumpets instead of doorbells.

The protocol when visiting was to toot and come in.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:52 PM on July 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


Man, that one kills me every damn time.

Of course it does. That's not a joke, that's an invocation of Anubis!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:05 PM on July 16, 2008


Being a feminist and accustomed to picking up on misogynist statements in the media, I was extremely irritated to hear about McCain's rape joke. He used the lamest punchline! The way it should go is: her friends come to visit her in the hospital and say, "How are you feeling?" She says, "Terrible! He never calls . . ."

I never thought of the story of Djadjamankh as a joke, but a bawdy story, a Tale of Ribaldry. Still, there's not much of a line between them, especially not in the oldest stories.

This Egyptian rock-face doodle may be the oldest political cartoon. It depicts the pharaoh-queen Hatshepsut and her chief minister Senmut, and its message regarding the artist's views on the administration remain clear today.

I have laughed aloud at Douglass Parker translations of Aristophanes, if anyone's inclined to seek out Greek comedies for the laffs.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:09 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


So a metafilter user walks into the blue, and posts an FPP on old jokes, but it just so happens that I already read my copy of Jim Holt's Stop Me If You've Heard This, and so I already know the punchline.

(He took his New Yorker article from 2004 and expanded it into book form. Pictures and everything.)
posted by redsparkler at 5:12 PM on July 16, 2008


Comicus: The Christians are so poor...
Swiftus: How poor are they?
Comicus: Thank you. They are so poor... That they only have one God.
[drumbeat, everyone laughs]
Comicus: But we Romans are rich. We've got a lot of gods. We've got a god for everything. The only thing we don't have a god for is premature ejaculation... but I hear that's coming quickly.

Thank you! Mr. Brooks will be here all week. Try the veal.
posted by elfgirl at 5:13 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


"I have some good news and some bad news," the galley master of a Greek bireme told the rowing slaves, chained to their oars.

"The good news is that today's gruel ration will be doubled. The bad news is that the captain wants to go water skiing."
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:33 PM on July 16, 2008


Interestingly enough, Robert Graves also has two Romans discussing how there are very few good jokes in the New Testament; but they do bring up two.

The speaker (someone's asleep in the room with my copy) points out that the "render unto that that which is Caesar's" is actually a pretty decent joke, because the coins had a picture of Caesar on them at the time, and it was a witty way of getting out of the predicament of being asked should I pay taxes (say yes, he's a wimp, say no, he gets executed).

I personally think the scene is pretty funny: Mary Magdalene has just washed Christ's feet with expensive perfume donated to them and then dried his feet with her hair. Judas, the eternal straight-man, walks in and says (all paraphrased), "What are you doing? We could have sold that and given the money to the poor!" and Jesus says, "The poor will be around for ever, you only get me for a short time."

Not screamingly funny but at least wry.

If you want good jokes, try the Buddhists:

Four young monks take a vow of silence for seven years.

They sit there.

It gets dark.

One of them says to one of the servants, "Boy, get me a light!"

The second monk says, "Hey, you talked!"

The third monk says, "Remember, we're not supposed to talk!"

The last monk looks proud and says, "I was the only one who didn't talk!"
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:31 PM on July 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


But in the end, did the monks get enlightened?
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:00 PM on July 16, 2008


"[The images show] ducks pecking at someone's buttocks, baboons and cats out of control, animals riding on top of other unlikely animals, baboons playing instruments, and animals drinking and dining."

I had no idea the ancient Egyptians had invented the Internet.
posted by lukemeister at 9:05 PM on July 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


Ahhh, now you started it. Buddhist humor part 2:

The seeker approaches a hot dog vendor, who is the Buddha in disguise. The venerable master says, "What can I get you, chief?"

The seeker replies, "Make me one with everything." He gives the vendor $20, which the Buddha pockets, and turns away to push his cart up the street.

"Wait! Wait!" cried the seeker, "where's my change?"

"Foolish seeker," said the Buddha. "Change comes from within."
posted by beelzbubba at 9:07 PM on July 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


lupus_yonderboy - I heard that same joke told as muslims in a prayer line! Truly there is nothing new under the sun.
posted by BinGregory at 11:13 PM on July 16, 2008


I can't help but think that Paul, trained as he was by the greatest Jewish legalist of his day, must have had a bit of a chuckle when he quoted the Epimenides statement to show the corruption of Crete (Titus 1:12). I can very readily believe he took the opportunity for a "ha ha, only serious" moment there.

I also like the dodgier reading of Galatians 5:12, for what it's worth. No Great Stone Face from Tarsus, he.
posted by eritain at 3:20 AM on July 17, 2008


> But in the end, did the monks get enlightened?

How many Buddhist monks does it take to light a brazier?
posted by ardgedee at 5:18 AM on July 17, 2008


None. The brazier is only in the mind.

Nevertheless, it has taken millions of monks to promulgate & explicate that concept, when it would probably have been simpler for a single monk just to light the fucking thing in the first place.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:35 AM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


OK, I can't resist any longer.

Metafilter: amused by nudity, drunkenness, slapstick and political satire
posted by eritain at 3:19 PM on July 17, 2008


metafilter : just to light the fucking thing in the first place.
posted by liza at 6:45 PM on July 17, 2008


So, the Three Stooges are getting tanked in a strip joint.

Mo says to Larry: "Hey, isn't that Hillary Clinton dancing up there on stage?"

Larry replies "It could be - she certainly knows how to twist & turn!"

(the rest of the scene doesn't translate well into words, but involved drinks being thrown, people falling off stools, and a surprise appearance by Barack Obama dressed as a lingerie waitress)
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:39 PM on July 17, 2008


So, one day in the Lower Paleolithic era, this stone-age type fellow is just minding his own business standing in a clearing in the forest. Suddenly a second stone-ager appears, running at full speed. He dashes through the clearning, knocking over the first guy.

"Dude, where's the fire?" asks the first guy.

"The what?" replies the second.
posted by La Cieca at 7:28 AM on July 18, 2008


LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The world's oldest recorded joke has been traced back to 1900 BC and suggests that toilet humor was as popular with the ancients as it is today.

It is a saying of the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq and goes: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."
World's oldest joke traced back to 1900 BC.
posted by Kattullus at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2008


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