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Old Jokes Never Die, They Just Grow Whiskers

Old Jokes Never Die, They Just Grow Whiskers
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2008

I was sitting with a new friend, Lalita Amos, having coffee, and she told me about a group of bloggers she meets with on a regular basis.

“We write about local news, current events, national and international politics.”

“I feel silly now,” I said.


“Because last week, all I wrote about was animal farts.”

After our conversation, I wondered if I’ve been wasting my time all these years as a humor columnist. Other journalists and writers take their work so seriously, writing about presidential politics, the ramifications of the Iraq war, and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s recent arrest. I, on the other hand, write at length about the TV show Project Runway on the Bravo channel, Polish men who find their wives working as prostitutes, and the methane expulsion of cows.

Real journalists, the kind who write for newspapers and TV news, look down their noses at the humor writers of the world. We're the class clown of the journalism world, the kids who don't know when to quit screwing around and get sent to the principal's office, because I told a dirty joke to the kid sitting next to me.

So my spirits were lifted when the University of Wolverhampton published the list of the 10 oldest jokes in the world, and I saw that potty humor – my humor -- has not changed in the last 3,908 years. The study was originally commissioned by the British television channel, Dave.

According to the website, the world's oldest joke is from the Ancient Sumerians in 1900 BC (Sumeria is now southern Iraq). They had a saying that went: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

Okay, so it's not "why did the chicken cross the road?" but at least the Sumerians had a sense of humor. Not like those cranky Babylonians.

What really made my day was the realization that I now have history on my side. All those teachers who said that potty humor is the lowest form of humor were mistaken. If a fart joke can last for nearly 4,000 years, that says something about the staying power of bodily function humor. Of course, it also made me feel like my 14-year humor career is a crying infant compared to the creaky old man of Ancient Sumeria.

According to the study, four of the ten ancient jokes were about sex or potty humor, one was about marriage, two were political, two were literary, and one was about John McCain as a young boy.

Number nine was a political joke from 1600 BC Egypt that asked how to entertain a bored pharaoh. "(S)ail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."

Nobody said the Ancient Egyptians were funny. I mean, who tells jokes about pharaohs?

Five hundred years later, they were at it again though. Number four was a joke from 1100 BC: "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!?'"

The Ancient Egyptians had no sense of timing either.

"Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles," said Dr. Paul McDonald, senior lecturer at Wolverhampton and writer of the report, said in a Reuters story. "What they all share however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humor can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes identified in this research."

My favorite joke is number 10 on the list, collected in the Philogelos (Latin for "Laughter-Lover"), the world's oldest joke book: "Asked by the court barber how he wanted his hair cut, the king replied, 'In silence.'"

I'm almost embarrassed to admit I've used this type of joke at restaurants, usually met with the same stony silence that I'm sure is coming from everyone who just read that last joke.

"How do you want your steak cooked," a waitress will ask me.

"On the grill," I answer.

I admit it's not "a horse walks into a bar," but at least I'm funnier than those Ancient Egyptians.


  1. So how do you say, "Pull my finger" in Sumerian?

    I just stumbled onto your blog, so I thought I'd say hello.



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