Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ancient Humor

I read the other day that in the Athens of Demosthenes, there was a comedians' club called the Group of Sixty, which met in the Temple of Heracles to trade wisecracks. Supposedly, Philip of Macedon paid handsomely to have their jokes written down; but if this is the case, the volume has been lost. 


Perhaps if this volume were found (assuming it ever existed), it might have included jokes like: 


A Greek father sends message to his son a couple days before Christmas and says, "Niko, I hate to ruin your day, but I must tell you that your mother and I are divorcing - fourty-five years of misery is long enough." 


"What are you talking about?" Niko returns in his response scroll. 


"We just can't stand the sight of each other. We're sick of marriage. I've already written to your sister, Toula, and told her of the bad news." 


Frantic, the son contacts his sister. The two decide to go home to talk some sense into their parents and send word not to act until they arrive. 


Their father reads the message, smiles, and turns to his wife, "Endaxi," he says, "they're coming home for Christmas and paying their own way." 


Okay, that's not the greatest example, but I think it beats Melissus's joke anthology he compiled for emperor Agustus, including such jokes as ("How shall I cut your hair?" A talkative barber asked a wag. "In silence!") 


See what I mean? 


Ancient Greek jokes are a bit more cryptic than funny, but the potency of jokes seems to live on. 


While the art of joke telling seems to have been lost during the Dark Ages, the invention of printing during the early Renaissance changed all that. True, most jokes during this time came from a rather libidinous bibliophile, Poggio Braciolini, who despite traveling through Europe to brilliantly preserve lost works of literature; wielded one wicked pen. He satirized the vices of clergy and lambasted rival scholars. An unmatched wit, a contemporary stated that, "In his invective he displayed such vehemence that the whole world was afraid of him." 


Interestingly enough, though he nearly single handedly brought back literature to mostly illiterate western Europe, and invented the prototype of the roman font, he's best remembered for his book of jokes. 


It just goes to show you, an outrageous, uproarious compendium of humor outlasts a mature philosophical reflection any day. 



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