Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Worlds Oldest Joke, A Lesson In Funny.

If this had been published on April first, I’d've chalked it up to a prank, but the Guardian is reporting on a 1,600 year old book of Roman jokes.

Written in Greek, Philogelos, or The Laughter Lover, dates to the third or fourth century AD, and contains some 260 jokes which [classics professor Mary] Beard said are “very similar” to the jokes we have today, although peopled with different stereotypes – the “egghead”, or absent-minded professor, is a particular figure of fun, along with the eunuch, and people with hernias or bad breath.

One of the jokes goes as follows: A barber, a bald man, and an absent-minded professor are taking a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it’s the barber’s turn, he gets bored and amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head and says “How stupid is that barber? He’s woken up the bald man instead of me.”

Funny thing about stereotypes, though, because Professor Beard promptly falls into the egghead stereotype toward the end of the article when she over-analyzes a simple joke. To wit:

But [Beard] queried whether we are finding the same things funny as the Romans would have done. Telling a joke to one of her graduate classes, in which an absent-minded professor is asked by a friend to bring back two 15-year-old slave boys from his trip abroad, and replies “fine, and if I can’t find two 15-year-olds I will bring you one 30-year-old,” she found they “chortled no end”.

“They thought it was a sex joke, equivalent to someone being asked for two 30-year-old women, and being told okay, I’ll bring you one 60-year-old. But I suspect it’s a joke about numbers – are numbers real? If so two 15-year-olds should be like one 30-year-old – it’s about the strange unnaturalness of the number system.”

Are numbers real?! I’m sorry, Professor, but that joke is not about the “strange unnaturalness of the number system.” Sometimes it really is about the 15-year-old slave boys.
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