Friday, August 1, 2008

The Odd Evolution of Humor


Humor, apparently, evolves over time. And it's a good thing too, because at first they didn't quite have the hang of the whole humor-should-be-funny concept. Not at all.

The witty guy over there at Dave - The Home of Witty Banter (shocking that his name is Dave, I know) says that they "spent two months trawling the annals of history to produce the first report of its kind into the world's oldest recorded jokes." Now, while I don't doubt them for a minute, I have no idea how you would go about finding this sort of material. I mean, if it had it's own category, we could look it up on our own (provided we were actually bored enough to ponder something like this). So I'd have to guess that it's sort of dispersed throughout other accounts of history, but I still don't quite get how. Is there a break in the discussion about the causes of the Peloponnesian War where they throw in a couple of ancient "Knock-knock" jokes to lighten the load a bit? I don't get it.

But that's why I'm not Dave. He gets it. Or, at least, he got it. And I'm glad he did because if the ten oldest ones that he found are any indication of how the rest of the jokes in history turned out, it would be a horrible topic to research. But that's just mainly because if you're researching humor, you're going to expect things to be funny. It's just how it works. But when you find out that, aside from lacking the basic essentials that keep humans alive today (the Internet, porn, etc.) the ancient people had a different idea of what was "funny". That is to say, they found "not funny" to be hilarious.

The oldest joke comes from somewhere between 1900 BC and 1600 BC and was found in the Sumerian Proverb Collection 1.12-1.13 (that according to Dave. I have NO idea what that means.). The joke goes like this: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap." That's it. It's over. Are you laughing? No? Dang. I was kind of hoping you were so that you could explain it to me. Not only is it not funny, it's nonsensical as well. (They really should have looked into that Internet thing a bit more.)

The next oldest joke was from 1600 BC on the Westcar Papryus. (Yes! The Westcar Papryus! I could hardly believe it myself! Mainly because I have NO idea where or what that is, but there's a picture of it to the right here.) That joke goes: "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish." See what I mean? While better than the Sumerian Proverb above it, still not funny. Sensical, but dumb. Is that an improvement? Maybe, but it's not a very good one.

From 1200 BC we have what doesn't read so much like a joke as it does a weird math story problem. "Three ox drivers from Adab were thirsty: one owned the ox, the other owned the cow and the other owned the wagon's load. The owner of the ox refused to get water because he feared his ox would be eaten by a lion; the owner of the cow refused because he thought his cow might wander off into the desert; the owner of the wagon refused because he feared his load would be stolen. So they all went. In their absence the ox made love to the cow which gave birth to a calf which ate the wagon's load. Problem: Who owns the calf?!" Oh, the troubles of the folk in 1200 BC. They would have killed to have our modern day trivial dilemmas like nuclear war and world famine.

100 years later in 1100 BC over there in Egypt, they came up with this one: "A woman who was blind in one eye has been married to a man for 20 years. When he found another woman he said to her, "I shall divorce you because you are said to be blind in one eye." And she answered him: "Have you just discovered that after 20 years of marriage!?" And really? He probably had.

I'm skipping ahead a little here. Still in Egypt but this time we're joshing around in the Ptolemaic Period between 304 BC and 30 BC. This time, ancient wisdom tries to masquerade as humor. "Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey - his purse is what restrains him." Well, if the man has a purse, that wouldn't really so much restrain him as it would deter others from wanting to copulate like said donkey with the man. Purses? Not very manly.

Now, around 300 AD - 400 AD is when the Philogelos finally start getting the hang of it. "Wishing to teach his donkey not to eat, a pedant did not offer him any food. When the donkey died of hunger, he said "I've had a great loss. Just when he had learned not to eat, he died." All right, I'll admit it, I find that amusing. It's one of those jokes that's just silly. So silly that it makes it funny. It's that component that compels me, even to this day, moments before I turn 40, to interject, "Then don't do that" after someone says, "It hurts when I do this." Then hilarity ensues. (Why, yes, I do enjoy Laffy Taffy.)

So they started off horrible, progressed to bad, then started to make sense, added a purse and then became funny. It's evolution right before your very eyes! And it's led us to where we are today! In a world where funny actually is funny. And I, for one, am thrilled that it is. If it weren't, I'd be looking for a new gig, that's for sure.

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