Do The World's Oldest Jokes Still Hold Up?

Dec 17, 2016
Originally published on December 17, 2016 11:46 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many have come to know AJ Jacobs as a man who likes to go on quests and write bestsellers about them, whether it's to turn himself into the world's smartest human - not sure how close he came - or to live a year according to the Ten Commandments. A.J.'s latest boondoggle is to find the world's oldest recorded jokes and to see if they can still make people laugh. Here he is to tell you all about it.

A J JACOBS, BYLINE: Last week over dinner, I thought I'd brighten the mood and tell my wife the latest joke I'd heard.

All right. Are you ready?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yep.

JACOBS: Here goes. Did you hear about the cheapskate?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.

JACOBS: Yeah. When he wrote his will, he named himself as the heir. (Laughter) So the idea is the cheapskate died and left all of his money to himself.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, whoosh.

JACOBS: OK. So it didn't quite kill, but maybe that's understandable. It's not exactly a fresh joke. It's an old joke, really old, as in 1,600 years old found in one of the earliest surviving joke books from ancient Greece. To back up, for the last few weeks, I've been researching punch lines from the distant past. My quest was sparked by a simple question from my 10-year-old son - what is the world's oldest joke? We are living in an age saturated with disposable, of-the-moment humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Google - what is ISIS?

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: So I was intrigued by my son's question. What was humor like thousands of years before Lorne Michaels? And can those ancient jokes still crack us up? I went searching for an authority on ye olde humor, and I found this man.

SCOTT WEEMS: My name is Scott Weems, and I'm a cognitive neuroscientist and writer of the book "Ha!" when - why we laugh (laughter) "What Makes Us Laugh And Why." I forgot my own title.

JACOBS: Fortunately, Weems did recall the main points of his book, and one of those points is that we'll never understand the majority of very old jokes because the context was radically different. For instance, listen to this ancient Greek one-liner. Thistles are like lettuce to the lips of a donkey. Get it? Not so much. Well, turns out, it's actually kind of a primitive Viagra joke. Lettuce, Weems explains, was thought to be an aphrodisiac.

WEEMS: Any joke involving lettuce would get laughs because it was all these sexual overtones, and they're just incomprehensible until you understand that not only is lettuce funny but the head of the lettuce is funnier than the leaves of the lettuce. And we have similar things now except now it takes a little bit more to shock people, so you're a little more graphic in your descriptions.

JACOBS: Also popular in ancient joke books - one-liners about eunuchs and put-downs about people from the town of Abdera who were apparently the dumb blondes of ancient Greece. So if these have aged badly, what does last? Well, happily for the prepubescent demographic, and perhaps sadly for humanity, what lasts is the lowest of the lowbrow - insult humor, slapstick and, yes, bathroom humor. So while it's impossible to know the very first joke uttered by a cave comedian, the oldest joke we have in writing is actually a fart joke. It's from Bronze Age Sumeria, circa 1900 B.C. And, ladies and gentlemen, here it is.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What has never happened since time immemoriam? A young wife has not farted on her husband's lap.

JACOBS: Which, with a few wording tweaks, is an observation you might hear a hack comedian make on a cable special today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You ever notice women don't fart in front of you until you're married.

JACOBS: Again, here's neuroscientist Scott Weems.

WEEMS: The jokes, unfortunately, that are remembered and that reach a wider audience, they tend to be the more mediocre ones anyway.

JACOBS: The more highbrow stuff, the Andy Kaufmans and Louis C.K.s days of the ancient agora, they are lost to history.

WEEMS: I suspect there was one comedian back in Greece who did not warrant getting anything written about him or her but who made some great jokes that had nothing to do with farting or lettuce and probably had a very selective cult following that we'll never know about.

JACOBS: But my quest wasn't quite over yet because there's one other crucial factor in the making of comedy. Maybe, as they say, it's all in the delivery. Perhaps super old humor can connect as long as it's told by the right person. So I got in touch with Jim Gaffigan, one of America's top stand-up comics. Jim agreed to help with our experiment. He would secretly work some ancient Greek jokes into his act at Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan.

JIM GAFFIGAN: It could be a horrible disaster. You guys could destroy my career.

JACOBS: That's what we're going for.

A few minutes later, Jim took the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAFFIGAN: I have a very chatty barber who always wants to talk the entire time. And I'm always tempted, like, whenever he goes, all right how would you like your hair done, I just want to say, in silence.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: Not bad, but how about this one?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAFFIGAN: I had a friend who - this is kind of an awkward story, but he and his wife, they never got along. They hated each other. And then she suddenly died. And so...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Aw.

GAFFIGAN: I know. I didn't kill her.

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: And so we were there at the funeral, and he was standing there and I was talking to him. And this priest came up and he was like, who's resting in peace here? And my friend, without missing a beat, he goes, me. I hated that lady.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: The dead wife joke fell mostly flat.

GAFFIGAN: I was tempted to change the gender so that it was the wife that hated the husband.

JACOBS: Even with Gaffigan's perfect delivery, dead wife jokes are a tough sell in modern day New York. Jim's career, we hope, wasn't destroyed. In fact, we thought maybe this could usher in a whole new phase for him.

Any chance you will incorporate these 2,500-year-old jokes in your material?

GAFFIGAN: Absolutely not (laughter). Well, some of it is, I think, comedians strive to be independent and fresh, and the last thing you want to do is an old joke. And the last thing you'd want to do of an old joke is one that's from, like, 2,000 years ago.

JACOBS: It's true. You don't want to do 2,000-year-old jokes about lettuce. If you're going to make jokes about leafy greens nowadays, you got to go with, you guessed it, kale.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAFFIGAN: Kale is so good for you. They could find out kale cures cancer and I would still be like I'm just going to do the chemo, all right?

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: I've tried the kale.

SIMON: Jim Gaffigan and AJ Jacobs. AJ's latest book out soon is called "It's All Relative." And here's a joke that never gets old (laughter) BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.