I've been getting some flack from my unfortunate photo op in the latest FJ. And a couple of notes from guys saying they appreciated the laugh right now.
But humor is nothing to laugh about, historically speaking.
Laughter was always a favourite device of ancient monarchs and tyrants, as well as being a weapon used against them. The good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. The tolerance of the Emperor Augustus in the face of quips and banter of all sorts was still being celebrated four centuries after his death. One of the most famous one-liners of the ancient world, with an afterlife that stretches into the twentieth century (it gets retold, with a different cast of characters but the same punchline, both in Freud and in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea), was a joking insinuation about Augustus’ paternity. Spotting, so the story goes, a man from the provinces who looked much like himself, the Emperor asked if the man’s mother had ever worked in the palace. “No”, came the reply, “but my father did.” Augustus wisely did no more than grin and bear it.
Tyrants, by contrast, did not take kindly to jokes at their own expense, even if they enjoyed laughing at their subjects. Sulla, the murderous dictator of the first century BC, was a well-known philogelos (“laughter-lover”), while schoolboy practical jokes were among the techniques of humiliation employed by the despot Elagabalus. He is said to have had fun, for example, seating his dinner guests on inflatable cushions, and then seeing them disappear under the table as the air was gradually let out. But the defining mark of ancient autocrats (and a sign of power gone – hilariously – mad) was their attempt to control laughter. Some tried to ban it (as Caligula did, as part of the public mourning on the death of his sister). Others imposed it on their unfortunate subordinates at the most inappropriate moments. Caligula, again, had a knack for turning this into exquisite torture: he is said to have forced an old man to watch the execution of his son one morning and, that evening, to have invited the man to dinner and insisted that he laugh and joke. Why, asks the philosopher Seneca, did the victim go along with all this? Answer: he had another son.Ethnicity, too, was good for a laugh, as the story of the Tarentines and the toga shows. Plenty more examples can be found in the only joke book to have survived from the ancient world. Known as the Philogelos, this is a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the fourth century ad but including – as such collections often do – some that go back many years earlier. It is a moot point whether the Philogelos offers a window onto the world of ancient popular laughter (the kind of book you took to the barber’s shop, as one antiquarian Byzantine commentary has been taken to imply), or whether it is, more likely, an encyclopedic compilation by some late imperial academic. Either way, here we find jokes about doctors, men with bad breath, eunuchs, barbers, men with hernias, bald men, shady fortune-tellers, and more of the colourful (mostly male) characters of ancient life.
Pride of place in the Philogelos goes to the “egg-heads”, who are the subject of almost half the jokes for their literal-minded scholasticism (“An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. ‘Doctor’, he said, ‘when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes.’ ‘Get up 20 minutes later, then’”). After the “egg-heads”, various ethnic jokes come a close second. In a series of gags reminiscent of modern Irish or Polish jokes, the residents of three Greek towns – Abdera, Kyme and Sidon – are ridiculed for their “how many Abderites does it take to change a light bulb?” style of stupidity. Why these three places in particular, we have no idea. But their inhabitants are portrayed as being as literal-minded as the egg-heads, and even more obtuse. “An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked, ‘So is she your daughter then?’” And there are many others on predictably similar lines. [More]
So if you are reading or hearing me, and the thought arises that I'm using old material - it all is.