A History and Philosophy of Jokes

William Grimes in the New York Times Book Review:

Screenhunter_04_jul_20_0933In “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This,” his wispy inquiry into the history and philosophy of jokes, Jim Holt offers up a choice one from ancient times. Talkative barber to customer: “How shall I cut your hair?” Customer: “In silence.”


This knee-slapper comes from “Philogelos,” or “Laughter-Lover,” a Greek joke book, probably compiled in the fourth or fifth century A.D. Its 264 entries amount to an index of classical humor, with can’t-miss material on such figures of fun as the miser, the drunk, the sex-starved woman and the man with bad breath.

Let us not forget the “skolastikos,” or egghead: “An egghead was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. ‘Don’t cry,’ he consoled them, ‘I have freed you all in my will.’”


Holt, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, combs through a number of obscure texts, ancient and modern, in his fast-moving, idiosyncratic survey of humor and its vagaries through the ages.

More here.