Joe Miller was a "snapper up of unconsidered trifles"
April 20, 2017 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Joe Miller, also known as Joseph or Josias (1684–1738), was an English actor who favored comedies, but was in fact, known for his grave demeanor and subdued humor. This led to an in-joke whereby all his companions ascribed all new jokes to him, though he is also said to have collected jokes himself. After his death, John Mottley (1692–1750), using the pseudonym of Elijah Jenkins, Esquire, published a book called Joe Miller's Jests, or the Wit's Vade-Mecum in 1739 (; also available in a semi-modern web format), containing 247 jokes, but that was just the first of many editions and copies.

While books in this format (i.e. "Mr Smith's Jests") were common before Mottley's publication, the popularity of both Joe Miller himself and of Mottley's first book lead to later versions, often not wholly connected to the first, entitled with names such as Joe Miller's Joke Book, and The New Joe Miller. For a (more) complete experience, enjoy Joe Miller's complete jest book: being a collection of the most excellent bon mots, brilliant jests, and striking anecdotes, in the English language, published in 1859, with 1546 jokes ( Project Gutenberg has Joe Miller's Jests, with Copious Additions by Mottley, Miller, and Bellew, published in 1865, with 1286 jokes, and an more than 130 epitaphs and proverbs tacked on at the end, for good measure.

But wait, there's more! Mark Lemon, the first editor of Punch magazine, compiled his own version of The Jest Book with 1711 jokes. It is conveniently available online, broken down into sets of 100 jokes per webpage, with an alphabetized index if you want to browse the jokes by title.

If that's all too British for you, perhaps The American Joe Miller: A Collection of Yankee Wit and Humor by Robert Kempt (Project Gutenberg) from 1863 is more your cup of tea, er, coffee?
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Picking one at random and it's a dick joke:

A Gentleman happening to turn up against an House to make Water, did not see two young Ladies looking out of a Window close by him, ’till he heard them giggling, then looking towards them, he asked, what made them so merry? O! Lord, Sir, said one of them, a very little Thing will make us laugh.
posted by JonB at 7:48 AM on April 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

The Duke of A----ll, who says more good Things than any Body, being behind the Scenes of the First Night of the Beggar's Opera, and meeting Cibber there, "Well Colley," said he, "How d'you like the Beggar's Opera?"

"Why it makes one laugh, my Lord," answer'd he, "on the Stage; but how will it do in print?"

"O! Very well, I'll answer for it," said the Duke, "if you don't write a Preface to it."*

* See Cibber's Preface to Provok'd Husband.
(quotation marks added, footnote in original (!)).

That is some seriously inside Early Modern theatre.
posted by jedicus at 7:54 AM on April 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

So many of these are awful puns. I like this one, though:
Henry the IVth, of France, reading an ostentatious Inscription on the Monument of a Spanish Officer, "Here lies the Body of Don &c., &c. who never knew what Fear was."

"Then", said the King, "he never snuffed a Candle with his Fingers."
posted by jedicus at 8:05 AM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

These are fantastic (if occasionally also fantastically awful).
Lord R----- having lost about fifty Pistoles, one Night at the Gaming-Table in Dublin, some Friends condoling with him upon his ill Luck, Faith, said he, I am very well pleas’d at what I have done, for I have bit them, by G--- there is not one Pistole that don’t want Six-Pence of Weight.
There are so many of these that would fit the basic framework of modern jokes, and you can see, reading them, how they would be funny, if you didn't need to take a while to work through what they're actually saying. A lot of them, like the one above, have broad analogues in modern jokes -- I'm sure I've read variations in the above in more-up-to-date language.
posted by cjelli at 8:15 AM on April 20, 2017

My name is Joe Miller. I once met another Joe Miller, and when we were introduced I said "what is this, some kind of joke?"

He didn't get it.
posted by HighLife at 8:17 AM on April 20, 2017 [13 favorites]

Picking one at random and it's a dick joke

That is some seriously inside Early Modern theatre

So many of these are awful puns

This is all true of many of these, which is probably why it's best to compile a lot of jokes - someone of them will stick.

And on reading these, I realize I would love an annotated copy of these. Perhaps I could toss them into Genius and mark them up there.

I'm sure I've read variations in the above in more-up-to-date language.

Also, tracking the "lineage" of jokes would be interesting.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:17 AM on April 20, 2017

There was a book called Joe Miller's Book of Jests right next to Bennett Cerf's Bumper Crop on my Grandma's bookshelf. I never checked it out, and now I'm wondering how it was related to this. I'll add it to the time machine to-do list
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:17 AM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, tracking the "lineage" of jokes would be interesting.

Marc Galanter wrote a book tracing the history of lawyer jokes, finding some remain essentially unchanged since the 15th century: Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture.
posted by jedicus at 8:42 AM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Onomatopoeic rapping at thine chamber door!
Whoest presents thyselves at my quarters?
'Tis I, a gentleman caller monickered of the family name "boo"!
What is thy business, kind sir Boo?
A lacrimose response is hardly warranted in this instance!
posted by dr_dank at 10:52 AM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

In Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld book The Fabulous Riverboat, he has Samuel Clemens give the nickname "Joe Miller" to a prehistoric giant who, as soon as he's learned enough English, tells Clemens a millennia-old joke about a traveling hunter and a medicine man's daughter.
posted by larrybob at 11:21 AM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

A YOUNG author reading a tragedy, perceived his auditor very often pull off his hat at the end of a line, and asked him the reason. “I cannot pass a very old acquaintance,” replied the critic, “without that civility.”

still a pretty good burn tbh
posted by Countess Elena at 6:19 PM on April 20, 2017 [5 favorites]

Let's not forget Captain Billy's Whiz Bang!
posted by languagehat at 7:39 AM on April 21, 2017

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