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Infinite jest: The world’s oldest newest joke

Updated: Feb 22

Earl Fowler

It’s reputed to be the oldest joke in the world.

The oldest of which we have a written record, anyhoo, inscribed in cuneiform characters on a Sumerian clay tablet dating from about 4,000 years ago. And it goes like this:

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.

Ba-da-bing. Drum roll and cymbal strike, please.

OK. Not really a thigh-slapper … unless you count, perhaps, the flatulence itself. Mind you, Henny Youngman would have told it better.

(Oh, that Henny Youngman. Take my wife. Please.)

I wonder what “since time immemorial” would have meant to people in 1900 BCE. Since the invention of the wheel? Like, you know, last October? Next thing you know, they’ll be hooking up carts to the wandering aurochs. “How do I get radio reception in this thing? Casey Kasem will be on with his American Billslate Top 100 countdown when the small shadow hand on the sundial hits VIII and the big hand strokes the XII.”

However crappy, we can all agree that the Sumerian stinker was still at least on par with some of the lame skits on SNL these days. And you have to factor in the understanding that early Bronze Agers typically spoke a fairly fractured English, like MAGA Republicans today. In the desert they could remember their name because there weren’t no one for to give them no pain.

My favourite joke from the ancient world is embedded in The Odyssey, that laugh-a-minute Greek epic poem attributed to Homer and dating from the eighth or seventh century before Christ.

Not a joke, exactly — more an existential observation about nothing. Seinfeld avant la lettre.

It’s kind of a long story, but the gist of it is that our hero Odysseus outsmarts the cyclops Polyphemus, who has captured the seafaring king of Ithaca and his crew, by identifying himself as “Nobody” — just before getting the man-eating colossus drunk and taking out his one eye.

Ho ho ho, gangrene giant.

Polyphemus loudly proclaims that “Nobody has blinded me!” as Odysseus and his remaining men escape, but this is reasonably interpreted by the other cyclopses (cyclopi?) as more of a cry for psychological help than for physical assistance. The big baby was always a bit of a drama queen, and anyway, the quarrelsome cyclopses (cyclopi?) rarely saw eye to eye on anything.

Ultimately, the joke turns out to be on Odysseus and the boys, who stop yukking it up when Poseidon, god of the sea and father of Polyphemus, finds out about the ruse. He’s having nin-ev-eht and puts his flipper down.

Nonetheless, in all the confusion, the Ithacans’ tactical gambit seems to have spawned the very first “knock, knock” joke:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?


Nobody who?

Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Knock-knocking and poop humour were still figuring prominently in the bawdy plays of Aristophanes a few hundred years after the time of Homer. The Father of Comedy even had the temerity to have the timorous god Dionysus soil himself with fear at the door of a fierce king in The Frogs (first performed in 405 BCE).

But above all, Aristophanes loved lampooning Athenian philosophers, and Plato groused that the playwright’s caricature of Socrates in The Clouds  — as a fraudster and sophist engaged in nothing more lofty than examining the rear end of a gnat — helped bring about the trial, condemnation and suicide of the unjustly mocked sage.

Some people just can’t take a joke.

The ancient Greeks also believed cracking wise about dildos was hilarious, but I’ve thought long and hard about this, as it were, and have decided to proceed straight to the Middle Ages.

How’s this for a sketch idea?

Informed late one night that a wayward nun in her charge is in the arms of a lover, an abbess rushes over to catch her subordinate in flagrante delicto. In the darkness, the abbess covers her head before leaving her quarters with what she assumes is her veil … but turns out to be the breeches of the priest with whom she had been in bed before being so rudely interrupted.

Mother Superior jumped the gun.

That story is one of 100 told — some intended to be morally uplifting, some erotic, some about sly wives cuckolding their husbands, some about lazy and corrupt clergy — in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century tour de force, The Decameron, which promptly inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer was a master, of course, of using satire and irony to underscore human foibles and the unjust class structure of his time. The characters in the absurd love triangle that is “The Miller’s Tale” — the husband, the wife and the husband’s hot young lover — are all fools tumbling toward a chaotic conclusion.

On par with Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is among the funniest and most exuberant characters in all of English literature. The widow of five successive husbands, eager for a sixth, envies King Solomon his thousand bed partners and delivers a telling early zinger (remember, this dates from more than 600 years ago) about the fact that the people writing down accounts of events were almost exclusively male:

By God, if wommen had written stories,

As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,

They wolde han writen of men more wickedness

Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.

By the way, I’m not wearing any pants. Film at 11.

Of course, some talented hombres have been pretty damn funny in their scribblings about both sexes through the centuries. Montaigne’s witty anecdotes, Shakespeare’s comedies, Cervantes’s epic novel Don Quixote, Voltaire’s acidulous sarcasm and Molière’s farces reached comedic heights seldom if ever scaled again in Western literature.

As more of a lowbrow chap with diminished powers of concentration, sure, I can enjoy your Mark Twain and your Oscar Wilde and your George Bernard Shaw and Stephen Leacock and Damon Runyon and Philip Roth and Eudora Welty and Evelyn Waugh and Martin Amis and Woody Allen and Joseph Heller and Dave Barry and David Sedaris and Fran Leibowitz and Roy Blount Jr. and Maureen Dowd and Gary Shteyngart and all the rest.

But while looking into the origins of sketch comedy, I have to say I also really dug learning about the absurdity of Black minstrels applying blackface to pass for white people applying blackface to pass for Black minstrels. It’s a tradition that continues today (as Keegan-Michael and Elle Key observe in their entertaining 2023 survey, The History of Sketch Comedy) with well-meaning white women spraying on tans and styling their hair with cornrows. America in a nutshell.

While clinging ardently to white privilege when it suits them, some even speak jive like Barbara Billingsley (formerly June Cleaver) in Airplane!

Just hang loose, blood. She going to catch you up on the rebound on the med side.

But back to the topic at hand. Allegations of sexual harassment notwithstanding, I share the Keys’ enthusiasm for former MPR humourist Garrison Keillor and his much-missed news from Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

I still love the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges (OK, maybe not so much the Three Stooges and anyway, there were four after Shemp replaced Curly), the little I can remember of Steve (“Radio is the theatre of the mind; television is the theatre of the Mindless” ) Allen, the quick wit of Dick Cavett, the pre-Beatles plate spinners and the chimp trapeze acts on Ed Sullivan’s show though Topo (“Eddie, kiss me goodnight”) Gigio gave me the creeps and the Shakespearean allusions of Wayne and Shuster went over my head, Flip Wilson’s story about the ugly baby, George Carlin’s Hippy Dippy Weatherman, the Smothers Brothers, the skits of Dudley Moore and Peter (the T is silent, as in “fox”) Cook, Benny Hill’s chase scenes and buxom bosom shots, The Two Ronnies, Monty Python of course, SCTV, Paul Lynde’s (scripted, it turns out) snappy answers on Hollywood Squares (Peter Marshall: “According to the food editor of the Dallas Morning News, what’s the best reason for pounding meat?” Lynde: “Loneliness.”), Rip Taylor’s rubber chickens but not his cackle, Cher’s endless gibes about Sonny’s height, sequins, confetti, ruffled tuxedos, bellbottoms, feathered blowouts — what were they thinking? — Donny and Marie closing every show with “May Tomorrow Be a Perfect Day,” Tim Conway going off script and breaking up Harvey Korman on The Carol Burnett Show, that whole series of neuron-dissolving American sitcoms burned into our brains in the Sixties and Seventies and Eighties and Nineties (Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Mary Tyler Moore’s legs, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Get Smart and the Newhart shows and All in the Family and M*A*S*H and WKRP in Cincinnati and Barney Miller and Doctor in the House and Cheers and straight on till morning), Bugs Bunny and Yogi Bear and Mr. Magoo and the Flintstones ordering that killer Brontosaurus rib that tips over the car, the original cast of Saturday Night Live, Kate McKinnon, Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, the sheer vitality of Robin Williams on Mork and Mindy or Jim Carrey on In Living Color and, above all, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, and I could go on and on and on but I won’t except to shout: Piiiiiiiigs iiiiiiiiiiiiiin spaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

And so, yeah. It wasn’t exactly “As You Like It,” and I’m not reliving my vacuous childhood by rewatching all the old shows on the ironically named MeTV as whatever dignity and remaining sense of self I have left is sucked out of my eyeballs along with my immortal soul, but at the time we liked it fine. These and a ton of silly movies, from The Party to Blazing Saddles, Life of Brian to Borat. None of these diversions required exhaustive expenditures of mental capital, but they did require just enough attention to hang in for at least half an hour — with bathroom and snack breaks during the commercials.

Today’s turned-on, tuned-in, TikToked-out teens and younger kids, as you have probably noted and heard parents and teachers lament, inhabit an alternate reality. Their medium is the mirage. Snapchat and YouTube have shortened attention spans to bytes the size of a gnat’s rear end.

Bring out yer brain-dead.

If you have two minutes and 18 seconds to spare, check out Julian Smith’s Hot Kool-Aid bit on YouTube. The whole thing consists of an annoying screamer trying to get his brother to drink a glass of hot Kool-Aid. Ends with the screamer trying to sell hot Kool-Aid from the curb. That’s it. Stupidest thing you ever saw. Twenty-eight million views. When I checked in, it had attracted 22,296 comments.

I don’t find it remotely funny, but my grandsons think it’s hysterical, in precisely the same way they find Trump more entertaining than Biden. Serious commentators and columnists, it seems to me, markedly underestimate the importance of Trump’s World Wrestling Entertainment/reality television appeal to the vast majority of Americans who pay absolutely no attention to what’s going on around them. It’s not what the consummate con man says; it’s how he says it, with the half-crazed facial expressions and manic energy. It’s Hulkamania redux.

Being older than God, you’ve probably never heard of Toby Turner, aka Tobuscus, once a renowned Internet personality par excellence. His shtick consists of silly songs, inane observations about pop culture and video games, and boring, quotidian stories about his own boring, quotidian life. Not exactly Uncle Vanya. What he seems to offer is more the sort of companionship you’d get from a teenage buddy, even though Tobuscus is almost 40 and his followers would have real flesh-and-blood teenage buddies if they didn’t spend all their time playing video games and updating their social media profiles.

Despite a dramatic fall from grace after several former girlfriends accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting them, Tobuscus is closing in on four billion hits on three YouTube channels. This translates to millions of dollars in revenue, both for him and the video-sharing platform owned by Google.

Disturbing doesn’t begin to cover it. But man, does this stuff ever rake in the moolah!

Ever hear of Virat Kohli? If you’re an Indian cricket fan, you already know that as well as an elite athlete he’s an “influencer” with more than 265 million followers on Instagram. Kohli’s shilling for clothing and sporting brands worldwide earns him a reported $1.3 million US per post.

Mexican model and dancer Eleonora, of whom you’ve also never heard, makes $180,000 US per Instagram post about fashions that her 53.8 million followers obediently stampede to order on Amazon. Ain’t nothin’ in the world like a big-eyed girl to make me act so funny, make me spend my money.

No, it’s not cricket. But it is monkey see, monkey do. Which has never been known to fail among the young, impressionable and in-crowd aspirational since, oh, the Fertile Crescent was furrowed by the first wooden ploughs.

To us here at Getting Old Sucks Central (ever indebted to our tepid, take-it-or-leave-it fan base, with gusts up to 40 readers per post), these kinds of energizing examples have hinted at a surefire route to fame, wealth and adulation in this Internet Age of Theocratic UnEnlightenment.

So stand back everyone, for we’re about to go viral with an original 10-second joke sure to knock ’em dead all over the TikTok landscape. First we take Morin Heights, then we take Lachute. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial.

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial who?

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: A young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.

Wait, what? You’re stopping me?

Funny, you don’t look Mesopotamian.

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1 Comment

Well, ahhh…listen here, LaRue…I saw my first Mr. Beast episode days ago and oh that I could expel that memory through gaseous emissions.

Listen here, Beats; or whatever your name is, we don’t want you on this network. Now get out of my office! Where is Guy Caballero when you need him most.

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