We tend to think of the past as a classier time when people amused themselves with nothing but clever witticisms, ingenious wordplay and racism. The truth is that your grandfather laughed at fart and dick jokes at some point -- and history shows that so did your grandfather's grandfather and his grandfather's grandfather, and so on until the beginning of time (probably).
Here are five types of jokes that you'd expect to see in an American Pie movie that are actually much, much older than that.
#5. Shakespeare Wrote "Yo' Mama" Jokes
It doesn't matter who we are or where we're from -- we've all been on the receiving end of a disparaging crack about our mothers at some point, usually focusing on her weight, intelligence and/or insatiable sexual appetite. We see mama jokes on TV and in movies all the time, most commonly in lighthearted comedies like Saturday Night Live, Community and The Exorcist.
Here's an example from 30 Rock that demonstrates why Tina Fey is one of the most respected comedy writers of our time:
The Old-Timey Version:
Believe it or not, the first English use of maternal insult is attributed to Titus Andronicus -- not the person or the indie rock band, but the play written by William Shakespeare between 1588 and 1593. We've told you before about all the surprising words and phrases that Shakespeare invented; apparently, we can add "mom jokes" to that list.
"Thy mama is so stupid, she did think a Hamlet was something served at Denny's."
In Act IV, Scene II of Titus Andronicus, the brothers Demetrius and Chiron confront another character called Aaron, who is a Moor and a literal motherfucker. The conversation goes like this:
"DEMETRIUS: Villain, what hast thou done?
AARON: That which thou canst not undo.
CHIRON: Thou hast undone our mother.
AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother."
He then dropped the microphone and left.
Yeah, to be fair, they walked right into that one. A more unexpected version comes in Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare's far more obscure play Timon of Athens, where a painter accuses the philosopher Apemantus of being a dog (completely missing the fact that the word "ape" is in his name), to which he replies with the following zinger: "Thy mother's of my generation. What's she, if I be a dog?"
"Permit me to extend to you this medicinal rag, as thy skin is rife with the blisters of my prose."
#4. Chaucer Invented the Weaponized Fart Gag (and Ancient Japan Perfected It)
A weaponized fart gag is the evolution of the standard fart joke ("Someone farted"). In this case, the flatulence is so rancid that it doesn't just stink up the room, but can be used as a weapon or even cause the entire place to explode. Here is Damon Wayans, at the very apex of his Wayanistic powers, using it to render a kid unconscious in Major Payne:
Some would see this as evidence that society is going downhill, but it's not like this type of joke was even possible before. It's only been since the advent of modern popular cinema that we've finally had an outlet relaxed enough to actually make aerosoling a turd into someone's lungs at point-blank range acceptable for the mass market. Right?
The Old-Timey Version:
Actually, the father of the English language is also the father of using farts as weapons. Geoffrey Chaucer, the 15th century poet and author who pretty much invented English writing as we know it, beat the likes of Mel Brooks and National Lampoon to the punch by six or seven centuries.
And Jerry Lewis by a couple of decades.
In "Miller's Tale," included in The Canterbury Tales, horny student Absolom is peeping through a window at Alison, the wife of a rich carpenter who's away on business. Absolom asks Alison for a kiss, and she responds with a literal "kiss my ass" moment -- she sticks her butt out the window and, Chaucer writes, "with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers."
The guy, stunned, runs away, then decides to enact revenge by burning her butt with a hot poker (this is quickly turning into a Ren & Stimpy episode). When Absolom gets back and calls her again, Alison's lover, Nicholas, wanting to get in on the butt-joke action, imitates her voice to draw him in for another ass-smooch. Then this happens:
"This Nicholas then let fly a fart as great as a thunder-clap, so much so that with the stroke Absalom was almost blinded."
"Verily, it blew the rosary beads out of his hand."
That's right: Chaucer, not content to just write a simple ass-busting joke centuries ahead of his time, wrote about a fart so powerful that it imitates thunder and nearly removes the power of sight from its target. For the next great moment in fart warfare, you have to go to Edo period Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries. Behold:
Is he farting a cat, or some sort of giant gerbil? This is important.
Those are the more safe-for-work ones we could find. They are from the appropriately named "He-Gassen," an entire scroll created by an anonymous Japanese artist that consists of nothing but people farting on each other. They're just flying around like Dragon Ball Z characters, attacking one another with power farts.
What are they even doing in this one? Are they supposed to be farting in those sacks? What could they possibly-
#3. Dick Jokes Are as Old as the English Language
Dick jokes are a perpetual favorite of gross-out movies and lowbrow comedy websites. Among the many variations, the "bait and snatch" is a very simple type of dick joke where the interlocutor makes you think that he's talking about dicks, and then the punchline is: "It's not dicks." This works with female genitalia, too, as brilliantly exemplified by this clip from The Naked Gun:
In case you grew up without cable and haven't seen that movie 20 times, Leslie Nielsen appears to be looking up a woman's skirt and says "Nice beaver," to which she replies "Thanks, I've just had it stuffed." We then see that she is literally holding a stuffed beaver, and Nielsen's comment was actually an innocent compliment on her decorative taste. Because he's classy like that.
The Old-Timey Version:
A group of academics at England's Wolverhampton University set out to find the oldest joke written in the English language, and it turns out that it's all about dick. The joke is over 1,000 years old, and it goes like this: "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Answer: A key."
"And what do you hand to the valet when he offers to park your car? Answer: Your penis."
It's the exact same structure as the old "bait and snatch" gag you see in every Austin Powers film: They make you think that they're describing a dong, but then it's actually just an oddly shaped key casting a dong-like shadow. The joke was found in the Codex Exoniensis, a collection of some of the earliest known texts written in Old English dating from 960 to 990. That's right: When writing shit down in English was first invented, people's first instinct was to write jokes about boners.
"7 Things That Look Like Penises, by Brother Jeremiah. Number 7: My hat."
To put that into perspective, this joke was written 100 years before some estimates of Beowulf and a full 300 years before the Magna Carta, the document that established constitutional law in the English-speaking world. So basically, for over 300 years everyone in England was running around shouting dick jokes without any semblance of rules or laws. In other words, it was the Cracked offices with less mead and more sheepskin condoms.
And speaking of dirty jokes your ancestors might have told ...