A history of laughter – from Cicero to The Simpsons

Mary Beard in The Guardian:

Monty-Python-s-Life-of-Br-011One of Enoch Powell's most famous quips was prompted by an encounter with the resident House of Commons barber: a notoriously chatty character, who enjoyed treating captive clients to his views on politics and the state of the world. When Powell went in for a trim, the barber asked the standard question: “How should I cut your hair, Sir?” “In silence,” was Powell's instant riposte. Even Powell's political enemies have usually admitted, a bit grudgingly, that this was a rather good joke. But what they haven't realised is that it has a history going back more than 2,000 years. Almost exactly the same gag features in a surviving Roman joke book: the Philogelos (or Laughter Lover), a collection of wisecracks probably compiled in the fourth or fifth century AD.

The Laughter Lover is the only collection to come down to us more or less complete. It's arranged broadly according to the subject matter of the jokes. Most of those in the first half of the book, a hundred or so, have as their theme (and victim) a character called in Greek a “scholastikos” – sometimes translated as an “egghead” or “absent-minded professor”. Whatever you choose to call him, the scholastikos is so clever that he's stupid, and regularly uses his (ostensibly) highly trained brain to come to precisely the wrong conclusion. “A scholastikos went for a dip and nearly drowned. So he swore that he'd never go near water again until he'd learned to swim,” is a fairly typical example. “False analogy syndrome”, as a philosopher might call it, is the scholastikos's most besetting sin – as in this classic case of advice given by an “egghead doctor”: “'Doctor,' says the patient, 'whenever I get up from my sleep, for half an hour I feel dizzy, and then I'm all right.' And the doctor says, 'Get up half an hour later, then.'” The second part of the book features a range of other comic-type characters: from crooked fortune tellers and cowardly boxers to sharp-talkers, men with bad breath and – a predictable target in this decidedly misogynistic culture – “oversexed women”: “A young man said to his oversexed wife, 'Wife, what shall we do? Eat or have sex?' 'Whatever you want,' she replied, 'but there's no bread.'”

Picture: 'That slave you sold me died.’ ‘Goodness me, he never did that when I owned him’ … Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

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