Most 'Modern' Humor Dates Back To A 1,800-Year-Old Book
Welcome to ComedyNerd, Cracked's new deep dive series on deep sea diving. Today's topic: The ancient joke book that pioneered modern comedy.
Where does comedy come from? Up until now, the closest thing we had to an answer was: “A childhood sad just enough to make you use humor as a defense mechanism instead of going to therapy, but not so sad that you decide to become a poet.” That’s a tough tightrope act for those of us planning to retire on our kids’ comedy special residuals. You’re always asking yourself hard questions like: “Should I miss little Jimmy’s baseball game OR show up late and drunk and try to hit on his teacher?” If only there was an easier way to teach people comedy, I say as if I didn’t already give away the answer in the goddamn title.
So, yeah, there is this book titled Philogelos, which is Greek for “laughter-lover,” or “chuckle-schmuck” if you will. It’s a collection of 265 jokes composed by Hierocles and Philagrius, of whom we know exactly two things: 1) jack and 2) squat. We’re not even sure how old Philogelos is, but it’s possible that it goes back as far as the mid-3rd century, making it close to 1,800 years old. And it basically contains every kind of joke told in the last ~70 years, from Boomer’s “I hate my wife” humor to Gen Z’s “I hate my life” shtick, with proto-Monty Python and absurdist jokes thrown in there just to trick literature researchers into believing in time travel.
It’s actually kind of reassuring that your misogynistic uncle’s “jokes” about your aunt would solicit as many groans in Ancient Greece as they do today, mainly because everyone back then had already heard it all. Check out some of this Boomer shit from back when “Boomer” was probably a joke name for people who were so old, they were there when Vesuvius erupted:
There is a minimum of 100 posts featuring those exact words, surrounded by a couple of Minions, being posted on FB every hour or so. The Philogelos even has its own version of the Dumb Polish joke (which, as a Pole, screw you very much for -- the submarine screen door was ahead of its time). Only in Ancient Greece, the role of Poles was played by the Abderite people of Thrace or Cymaeans:
There is even a joke in Philogelos that’s like an early blueprint for Monty Python’s famous dead parrot sketch where John Cleese complains to a pet shop owner that the parrot he recently purchased has passed on, is no more, has ceased to be, is bereft of life, rests in peace. You get the idea. The joke is in how the store owner refuses to take responsibility for the pet’s death or even acknowledge it. 1,800 years ago, they told a similar joke, only about a dead slave cause, you know, the past sucked. Anyway, when a man complains about his purchased human being suddenly dying, the seller goes:
“By the gods, when he was with me, he never did any such thing!”
Still, the dead parrot sketch is like 50 years old. Does the Philogelos have something that would make your friend with a collection of Bernie Sanders and AOC T-shirts laugh? Judge for yourself:
But what about the edgelord crowd who think that “Hitler farted dead babies” is humor? Philogelos has something for them as well.
So, if the book seems to contain the basics of all modern humor … can it also predict the next big trend in comedy? Well, the collection does have a whole category of jokes that have never been super popular in the past, meaning that they might be due for their big break. So, if you want to be ahead of the curve, start telling jokes about women being mad horny NOW:
Follow Cezary on Twitter.
Top Image: Wikimedia Commons