Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Are Old Jokes Funny?

The first recorded joke was written down in ancient Sumeria in about 1800BC. It went something like this:

“Something which has not occurred since time immemorial: that a young woman did not fart till her husband’s embrace.”

Got you in stitches? Me neither.  Maybe the double negative kills the laugh. Maybe something got lost in translation.

Another old joke, rather more recent, from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”:

OLIVIA  Go to, y’re are a dry fool: I’ll no more of you: besides, you grow dishonest.
CLOWN: Two faults, Madonna, that drink and good company will amend: for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry.

By anyone’s standards, that’s pretty feeble. But at least we understand the “dry fool” gag, even if we don’t laugh at it. What can we make of this one from later in the play?

“Remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt hold the opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits; and fear to kill a woodcock, lest thou dispossess the soul of  thy grandam.”

No doubt Pythagoras and woodcock jokes were all the rage in 1600, but they leave us stony-faced.

It’s clear that context and style in comedy change drastically over the years, to the extent that jokes and sitcoms which made us hoot only twenty years ago now leave us cold. In terms of forcing us to drop our defences and let out a laugh, that is, which you could say is what comedy is all about.

But looking closer at the first two, you can see that they take the form of a joke much as we understand it today. They’re both in two parts. The first sets up an expectation (the setup) and the second subverts it (the punch line).

Our Sumerian gag writer sets things up with a pompous intro which leads us to expect something in the way of historical grandeur. What do we get? A fart.

The sense of the joke is that women fart anyway, and don’t bother too much about what men may think, even when they’re still in the market for a husband. That’s how I take it anyway. If you assume that Sumerian Society was a prim one in which women were expected to be like that, the appeal to people of the time is clear. It’s even slightly subversive. After thought, it’s rather humorous, even to us today.

Shakespeare’s gag is still terrible, but we can see the joke format OK.

Subject matter changes. The existence of the joke seems to be timeless. And long live fart gags.

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