Talk about old material...

4th century joke book published

The world’s oldest joke book, dating from 4th century AD Greece, has been published as an electronic book.

And veteran comic Jim Bowen has performed some of the gags in a London comedy club to see how modern audiences react to the ancient material.

The Philogelos – or Laughter Addict – contains 265 gags, often about a ‘scholastikos’, a sort of idiotic pedant here translated as a ‘student dunce’ but the butt of the sort of stupid jokes that have survived down the centuries.

Other enduring topics in the book – translated from the Greek for this new publication by former Stanford and UCLA classics professor William Berg – include farts, sex, ugly wives

Richard Stephenson, chief executive of the website Yudu, which is publishing the book, said: ‘It might contain some of the oldest - and worst – jokes that would fall flat in a traditional joke-book. But with the help of video, Jim Bowen brings them back from the dead. It’s like Jurassic Park for jokes.’

Bowen, 71, says many of the gags are similar to current ones. He said: ‘One or two of them are jokes I’ve seen in people’s’ acts nowadays, slightly updated; they put in a motor car instead of a chariot… Some of them are Tommy Cooper-esque.’

The gags were originally compiled by Hierocles and Philagrius, although little is known about them, even whether they collaborated, which was rare at the time, or whether the book was compiled later.

In his recent book, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This, author Jim Holt wrote: ‘Some of the Philogelos jokes are no more cryptic than funny, perhaps because of lost undertones.

‘A couple of jokes about lettuce, for example, might have struck a Roman audience as hilarious given their belief that lettuce leaves, variously, promoted or impeded sexual function.’

Some of the gags in the book include:

  • A man goes up to a student dunce and says, ‘The slave you sold me died.’  ‘By the gods,’ counters the dunce, ‘when he was with me, he never did any such thing!’

  • One of a pair of twin brothers dies.  When a student dunce runs into the surviving twin, he asks, ‘Did you die, or was it your brother?’

  • Someone needled a well-known wit: “I had your wife, without paying a penny. He replied, ‘It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?”
    • A fool sits down next to a deaf guy and farts.  The latter, noticing the smell, cries out in disgust.  The fool remarks, ‘Hey, you can hear all right!  You’re kidding me about being deaf!’

    Here is Bowen cracking some of the gags:

    And here he is talking about the book

    And here is a preview of the book, which is available to buy in full here for £5.95. Click the > in the top line to turn the pages:

    Published: 12 Nov 2008

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