If you’ve ever watched a comedy from the 60s or read a comedian’s sketches from the past, it always seems like humor was more tame in the past. When George Carlin explained the seven things you can’t say on TV, it was a shock. Comedy now has few qualms about going to the farthest corners of social commentary that we can imagine; but it would surprise most to learn that raunchy jokes have been around since society began.
The oldest joke on record was a Sumerian pondering from 1900 BCE. It goes as follows: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” While not exactly a humorous joke by most standards, the concept behind it still finds its way into modern humor, as we find many a person yukking it up about farts 4,000 years later. In 1,001 Arabian Nights, a similar story hits the pages. The Tale of Abu Hasan describes a man who just got married. He meets with his guests and has a grand time, his new wife retires to the bedroom and after a short while he declares he will as well. As he stands up, he lets fly the longest and loudest trouser cough that Arabia had ever seen, “that echoed from wall to wall and silenced every voice in the room”. His guests resume conversation and he bolts. He runs to India. So embarrassed was he, that he spends the next 10 years in India, until finally he decides to return home. When he gets there, he hears a small boy ask his mother what year he was born in, to which she replies “Oh, that’s easy, my dear, you were born in the year that Abu Hasan farted!” This in a book that is considered a timeless piece of literature. Not only that, the act of breaking wind finds its way into Don Quixote, Canterbury Tales, Mark Twain and dozens of other famous pieces of literature.
In Iraq, archaeologists found a tablet that was engraved in 1500 BCE. A perfect example of how 3.5 millennium can shift the understanding of humor. Translation differences and simple changes in how a phrase is turned have made the riddles all but unsolvable to a modern mindset. It contained classic joke riddles we all know and love like:
Like a fish in a fish pond, like troops before the king. The answer: A broken bow. The thought is that a fish in a fish pond is useless, just like how troops who don’t fight and simply guard the king are useless. Therefor, the most clearly useless thing to a Bronze Age Babylonian would have been a bow that could not shoot.
The deflowered girl did not become pregnant. The undeflowered girl became pregnant. The answer: Auxiliary forces. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. I literally have no idea what this one could possibly mean.
Perhaps the most important find of the century, the tablet also had the following: “…of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her.” Ancient Babylon was the original home of the “your mother” jokes. If Babylon gets the medal for inventing “your mother” jokes, England gets the prize for inventing “that’s what she said”, when they used the phrase “said the actress to the Bishop” in the late 1800s.
Citations, for the petrified imagination: