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Today what we’re talking about is the most popular response to literally anything anyone could ever say to you during middle school.
Some of you may know that your mother was, allegedly, quite popular with the Xbox Live crowd about a decade ago – after all, that 14-year-old quick scoping try hard and the 23-year-old teabagging spawn camper with 10,000 hours on Modern Warfare 2 both claimed to have bedded her on multiple occasions, sharing the gruesome, degrading details each time their virtual bullets ended your virtual life.
Don’t worry – they were gasp lying. They were using a classic, tried and true sh*t-talking insult-joke to get under your skin. Wikipedia’s page for it is titled the “Maternal Insult,” a comically dry name for the much hated yet much celebrated “Your Mom” category of joshing.
The crux of the joke tends to involve a mother engaged sexually with the teller. While this is not always the case, the most biting deliveries generally fall in that category.
The oldest maternal insult comes to us from the distant times of 3500 BC, from ancient Babylon. A tablet found by researchers contained the riddle “…Your mom is by the one who has intercourse with her. What or who is it?” While we can’t answer the riddle owing to the fact that our PhD is in comparative chili judging rather than ancient Babylonian culture, we assume the answer is probably the person who wrote it. It’s just the way of the world.
Next, we have good ol’ Willy Shakes using it in a few of his plays. Perhaps the best comes from act four, scene two of Titus Andronicus, one of the “lesser” tragedies of the bard’s oeuvre:
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."
The thing about this scene, though - Aaron is not lying – Chiron and Demetrius’ mother is Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and Aaron is involved with her romantically. So, this may be the only time when the teller of the joke is not being a facetious liar (Mr. Cracked Writer, did you just use a synonym that means that same thing as the noun for your adjective? Why yes, yes I did.)
The joke really took off in the back half of the twentieth century – there’s of course the famous scene with the insulting Frenchman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
The joke came into its own, of course, on school playgrounds and classrooms in the 1990s. It began with using the answer of “your mom” to literally anything someone could have asked or said, no matter how nonsensical, and eventually evolved into the far more clever “Yo momma so…” Perhaps the best example comes from this iconic Robot Chicken scene:
So why did this format suddenly become popular among schoolchildren in the 90s? Well, we have the sketch show In Living Color to thank. A recurring sketch was “Dirty Dozens,” which featured the joke in spades.
Obviously, kids are pretty dumb, so it’s most likely that they and other In Living Color fans began quoting the jokes from the show and then eventually coming up with their own. That sketch is where such classics as “Yo mama so fat, she had to get baptized at SeaWorld” came from.
Since then, the joke has been a mainstay in the popular consciousness – from sitcoms to standup.
It’s even found a place on the Cartoon Network. Regular Show utilizes the form, although it was inverted into perhaps the funniest running joke on the show.
The joke is such a mainstay, in fact, that politicians aren't above it. Obama cracked one when talking about Andrew Jackson, and it’s absolutely no surprise that Trump just had to drop one in during his 2016 campaign.
And we would be pretty remiss if we didn’t mention that time MTV made an entire show out of the premise of the joke.
All of these are to, well, varying quality, but the joke has always walked with a foot in both worlds – the lowest of the lowbrow at its worst, with the ability to ascend to a higher plane of comedic existence at it’s best, and its best is probably not the “Yo mama so…” format, but when it’s used at just the right time to snap back at someone (we’re looking at you, Jian Yang clip).
Of course, there is one more recent evolution in the joke: Joe mama.
The setup is easy: you tell someone something along the lines of “I’m going to Joe’s house.” They’ll say, “who’s Joe?” Oh man, they’re teed up now. Answer “JOE MAMA!”
Definitely not the cleverest version, but it’s one of those so stupid it’s funny ones. At least the first time or two.
So what’s next in the evolutionary process of this most ancient and venerated of insult humor? We could start insulting people’s fathers, but “Yo daddy’s so stupid…” doesn’t have the same bite to it, not to mention the already weird sexual connotations the 21st century has awarded to the word “daddy.” That’s not to say fathers haven't been the subject of the joke before, they certainly have, as well as siblings and other family members, but there’s something about using someone’s mom specifically that is an ineffable requirement.
Now that we’re thinking about it, the fact that the “mom,” and to a lesser extent, “sister” versions of the joke cut more deeply certainly speaks to a value judgement we collectively hold about the women close to us – their implied promiscuity stings more than a promiscuity implied about our brothers and fathers. Why is that?
I'll ask your mom.
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