By Matt Kenyon
The phrase “the old ones are the best ones” might not always be true. But some of the oldest jokes in history are still in use today. What makes a good joke? It’s worth going back a few thousand years to find out.
After months spent poring over medieval texts for her PhD, Martha Bayless made a surprising discovery. She was looking at some of the earliest jokes written in Latin by Catholic scholars (some in excess of 1,000 years old). Few had ever been translated into English before, yet many were still funny – and some even made her laugh out loud.
Shortly after, while waiting for her train, Bayless was reading a copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes 3 – a popular joke anthology from 1983. She was surprised to find, almost word for word, a joke that she had been transcribing just a day earlier.
The joke lives up to the “truly tasteless” promise of the book. This is how it starts in its 1,000-year-old format: Two men were walking along a road talking of this and that. “What do you think,” says one. “Which is more fun, defecating or having sex?”
The other man ponders the question before coming up with a solution. I’ll spare you the details, as it is a little rude by today’s standards, but it involved seeking the advice of a sex worker.
It struck Bayless that the joke had continued to be shared through a spoken culture of joke-telling, starting with the Latin text and culminating with her modern joke book, without needing to be written down for centuries in between.
There is clearly something in this joke that has kept it in use to this day, even if it is crass by today’s standards. But what is it that is still tickling audiences through the centuries? And will some modern jokes still be funny for thousands of years to come? As a comedy writer for BBC Radio 4, I was interested to find out.
It seems that there are recognisable features in even the earliest written jokes. National Public Radio (NPR) in the US suggested in 2016 that the oldest recorded joke is from Bronze Age Sumeria (an early Mesopotamian civilisation dating 3300-1200BC). The joke goes: “What has never happened since time immemorial? A young wife has not farted on her husband’s lap.”
Bayless, now a director of folklore and public culture at the University of Oregon, has written a number of books on early comedy. She says, “the earliest jokes were dirty jokes. People couldn’t resist them.”
Flatulence, for example, is funny because it shows our “uncontrollable physicality”, says Anu Korhonen, a professor of cultural studies from the University of Helsinki in Finland.
She adds the role of farts in early jokes was to represent our shared humanity and the equality of people, in an interview for the university magazine. Flatulence affects everyone – no one can help it.
Some researchers suggest that because humour brings us together it might have an evolutionary purpose. Perhaps our ability to make light of bad situations helped us to overcome them – by joining together in laughter, we were able to reinforce our social bonds. Some scholars point to the existence of teasing-like behaviours in primates like chimpanzees as evidence of an early evolutionary origin of humour in humans. However, captive animals could be copying behaviours they have seen in us.
But not all rude jokes translate well across cultures. Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, explains that cultural norms vary so widely, finding a universally funny joke is challenging. “Even something like belching has a cultural element,” he says. “In some cultures, to belch at the table is highly offensive. If your child does it, you might laugh because they don’t know any better. In other cultures, it might mean ‘Thank you, that was a wonderful meal’.”
By the medieval period, many jokes were so rude you might be forgiven for assuming that they originated in bawdy inns and the less salubrious corners of society. But that is not the case at all, says Bayless. “It used to be thought that you had the official level of the [Catholic] Church that was very effete and dignified, and people off in [general society] making jokes – when you do more investigation you find that it’s the important people making the jokes as well.”
Bayless has found that many of the oldest written jokes were scribbled in the margins of ornate early Latin Bibles. Even in a culture where only academic and religious elites could read and write, early Church scholars were busy entertaining each other with smutty comments.
Jokes in the times of all-powerful medieval monarchs were a risky business. Bayless recounts a story where a joke fell foul of English king Richard I. “Two men had been ridiculing the king at a drunken feast – the king was furious and summoned the men. Clearly disaster was about to befall the men, but then one of them answered: ‘We might have said those things, but that was nothing to what we were going to say if the wine hadn’t run out!'”
It was a close shave for the men, as “if they hadn’t come up with such a witty reply, their fate would have been dire indeed”, says Bayless.
There is less risk of being dispatched by an angry monarch these days, but reading the room is still an important skill for a comedian. McGraw says that effective jokes are a “benign violation” always walking a delicate balancing act between too soft and too extreme. The purpose of a benign violation is to elicit laughter and disgust at the same time – which perhaps explains why crude subject matter features so commonly.
“It explains the two ways a joke can fail,” adds McGraw. “That is that it can be too benign and too boring, like a child’s knock-knock joke. Or it can be too much of a violation. It highlights how delicate joke telling is because it’s easier to fail than it is to succeed.” So, telling jokes is serious business, and it requires a strong capacity for understanding the audience.
In fact, McGraw suggests that raw intelligence is the most effective indicator for whether someone is funny (of course a comedy writer would say that – Ed.). Among our ancestors, humour indicated that someone had a strong command of their surroundings. These jokes were made in the context of low life expectancy and a hostile world. But these fundamentals still hold in the modern day in our approach to relationships, and McGraw says “it’s important to recognise how enjoyable it is to spend time with someone who is funny, they have the propensity to help you better cope with the difficulties of the world”.
For example, jokes help us to subvert emotional states. When dealing with difficult subject matters, a funny punchline can distract us from the negative emotions.
And what about the contemporary panic about “cancel culture” in comedy? For McGraw, this is not such a unique moment in history.
“This phenomenon has been happening ever since there has been stand-up comedy,” he says. As the two jesters from Richard I’s court demonstrate, comedy has always been risky, and the power has always ultimately rested with the audience.
“What is wrong and what is OK is determined not by the teller, but by the audience member, by the receiver, and by their mood, the context they’re in, the number of drinks they’ve had, their culture, their identity,” continues McGraw.
If the power rests with the audience, the comedian has a tricky task in pleasing them. Stand-up comedian Catherine Bohart knows this pressure well. “The psychology of an audience is really interesting because [if] you seem fine, they are willing to trust you,” she says. “But if you are being vulnerable, they can sniff out that anxiety and vulnerability.”
It is an unusual arrangement to be commanding so much attention for such a long time, and audiences demand value. Bohart is currently touring across the UK and Ireland, and she agrees with McGraw that, while there may be common themes across thousands of years of comedy, there is no single bit of stand-up material that works 100% of the time. Stand-up comedy is risky precisely because the comedian faces a fresh set of audience members to win over each time.
Bohart says that audience laughter is complicated. “The moment of shock can stifle laughter. Anything we’re not supposed to laugh at: death, mental health, brutal self-deprecation. People can shy away from laughing out loud.”
Stand-up comedy in recent years has evolved at speed. Kylie Brakeman was one of the early adopters of a new kind of observational comedy that emerged at the start of the pandemic. Her to-camera Twitter videos have attracted millions of views and kicked off an era in which the day’s events can be parodied within minutes.
“It’s insane that we’re living in a world where daily TV is too slow to keep up,” says Brakeman. Online comedians are increasingly at the bleeding edge of satire. “If something happened in the news you could jump on it right away. It’s an advantage that online comedians have. Even if you’re writing for a late night show, the joke has already been made 17 times on Twitter before the show airs at night.”
This type of modern comedy, which dates in minutes, is a far cry from a joke scribbled in the margins of a Latin text, which needed to remain funny for the next scholar at whichever time they stumbled across it.
With this accelerated production process comes a different set of risks. But with an audience of millions kept behind a screen, “bombing” online feels less catastrophic. Brakeman says, “If people like it, then they like it. And if they don’t, they’re really not thinking about it that much. I think it’s much less of a severe thing than bombing on stage, because it’s just a case of getting no likes on something.”
Who knows what audiences thousands of years in the future would think if they unearthed videos of contemporary comedians. Maybe they will look at the cutting-edge comedy of today and see it much like the Mesopotamian fart joke: lacking in some of the finer cultural details, but with fundamentals that stand the test of time.