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May 31, 2024 8 mins

We all love to laugh, no matter when, where, or how we’ve lived. Amazingly, there are a handful of topics that have given us the giggles for at least 5,000 years. And a lot of them involve 6th-grade humor.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Okay, got a question for you. What makes you laugh?

Speaker 2 (00:02):
Well, believe it or not, it's probably what people have
been laughing at for thousands of years. We think that
over the millennia we've gotten more sophisticated, smarter, and kinder
in our humor. But guess what wrong turns out? Sixth
grade humor is timeless. I'm Patty Steele. Get ready to
roll your eyes when I tell you the first joke

ever recorded from more than forty five hundred years ago.
That's next on the backstory. We're back with the backstory. Well,
the earliest jokes were dirty jokes. People couldn't resist them,
say researchers, sex, flatulence, making fun of somebody has tickled
us since human beings have been recording jokes. Folks in

ancient Egypt were just like us. They loved political satire,
jokes about bodily functions and ones that ridiculed other people,
and they loved jokes about nudity and sex. Here's an
actual example of any Egyptian joke from as much as
four thousand years ago. How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?
You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in

fishing nets. Down the nile and urge the pharaoh to
go catch a fish. Not exactly a laugh riot, but
it is cutting edge humor, especially because the comedian had
the guts to make fun of royalty, which could be
dangerous in those days. But laughter actually originated before humans.
Our ape like non human ancestors had the capacity to laugh,

and they still do.

Speaker 1 (01:32):
You can tickle most mammals. We all know.

Speaker 2 (01:35):
Laughter is a fabulous release in a stressful life, I guess,
human or non human. Some of the earliest jokes came
from an ancient Sumerian tablet from Mesopotamia, which is modern
day Iraq. This particular joke is the oldest recorded from
almost five thousand years ago, and it is definitely the
first recorded joke about flatulence. So let the eye rolling begin.

Here you go something which has never occurred since time immemorial.
A young woman did not fart in her husband's lap.

Speaker 1 (02:08):
What the heck? I guess you had to be there.

Speaker 2 (02:12):
Equally unfunny, but also from over four thousand years ago,
is the first joke about somebody walking into a bar.
It goes like this, A dog walks into a bar
and says, I cannot see a thing I'll open this one.
Huh again, context is everything, I guess now more than
a thousand years ago, in the early Dark Ages, folks

still loved to joke, but they rarely made fun of themselves.
Those early jokesters had no interest in sharing their own
misery and shortcomings. But then we hit a little later
in medieval times. What make folks laugh was the same
sex politics, flagelms, of course, and ridicule. But they started
to be able to take a joke at their own

expense or their mother's. Yep, jokes about your mom got popular,
like this one from a well known joke book in
the fourteen hundreds.

Speaker 1 (03:06):
They had joke books. In the fourteen hundreds.

Speaker 2 (03:09):
A young Florentine boy was going down to the river
with one of those wool washing nets, whatever they are,
and met a frolicsome boy who asked him what birds
he was going to catch with that net of his.
I am going to the brothel. The first boy said,
to spread my net there and catch your mother. Replied
the second boy, Mind you search the place carefully, for

you'll be sure to find yours there also.

Speaker 1 (03:34):

Speaker 2 (03:35):
And then there was a move toward joking about folks
in the church like this one. A friar was preaching
to the people at Tivoli and thundering against adultery. It
is such a horrible sin that I had rather undue
ten virgins than one married woman. Many in the congregation
indicated they'd share his preference. And another an old bishop

who had lost some of his teeth, and complained of
others being so loose. He was afraid they'd soon fall out.
Never fear, said a friend. They won't fall Why not,
said the bishop. His friend replied, because my testicles have
been hanging loose for the last forty years, as if
they were going to fall off, and yet there they
still are. And what would have tickled you if you
lived in the eighteen hundreds in Victorian times. While things

were pretty conservative in those years. Here's an example of
what gave you the giggles in those days. See here, waiter,
I've found a button in my salad, says the waiter.
That's all right, sir, it's part of the dressing. But
they did get a little riskue. A servant says, ma'am,
your husband has eloped with the cook. Replies the wife. Good,

Now I can have the maid to myself. Once in
a while now. Speaking of the few naughty jokes heard
in the eighteen hundreds, Abe Lincoln amazingly was a great
joke teller, and he didn't mind getting a little blue.
Here's a pretty good one, and a bit surprising coming
from a nineteenth century president. It's a story about a
guy who loves to collect historic relics. He hears about

an old lady with a dress she'd worn during the
Revolutionary War. The collector visits her and begs to see
the dress. Speaking to the dress, he holds it up
and says, were you the dress this lady wore when
young and blooming? No doubt when she got you from
the dressmaker, she kissed you as.

Speaker 1 (05:18):
I do now.

Speaker 2 (05:20):
The old lady looks at the guy and says, if
you want to kiss something old, you had better kiss
my ass.

Speaker 1 (05:25):
It's sixteen years older than that dress. Wow. Go Abe.

Speaker 2 (05:31):
Understanding what makes people laugh played a huge role in
one of the biggest stories of the nineteenth century, also
involving Lincoln. When John Wilkes Booth was planning his assassination
of Abe, he needed to know when the biggest left
would come during the play at Ford's Theater that evening
called our American cousin. Booth knew the play inside out,
and he knew how audiences reacted to every bit of

its comedy. Now it's kind of dead in the water
for us. But this is the line they found sue ooh, hilarious,
said by a young American guy to a stuffy British lady.
I know you enough to turn you inside out, old gal,
You sockdologizing, old man, trap explosive laughter in the theater.

Why you know what? We'll probably never really know, except
that it is about making fun of somebody. But that
line and the laughter that followed obscured the gunshot that
killed Lincoln just long enough for Booth to escape in
the confusion, and he had banked on it. When we
get to the twentieth century, we had burlesque the movies

and later on TV and serious stand up and what
made people laugh You got it, sex politics, ridicule, and
they have her popular fart jokes. But as in the past,
there was also an element of sexism and racism in
the humor. Then as the century progressed, the humor got edgier,
and comedians like Lenny Bruce were even arrested for obscenity,

simply pushing the one right off the side of the table. Now,
in the last decade or so, we still laugh at
the same old stuff, but we've become much less edgy,
kind of forcing us to stay in sixth grade. Right.
Stand up comics like Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, and Jerry

Seinfeld complained that comedy is dead. Nobody can laugh at
others or even themselves anymore. On the other hand, maybe
we're just finding a new kinder path forward, still to come,
but for now. Unlike in the Middle Ages, when joking
about the king could get your head taken off, joking
about the wrong thing today can get you canceled, and

for most comedians that is worse than death. Hope you
like the Backstory with Patty Steele. I'd love it if
you would subscribe or follow for free to get new
episodes delivered automatically, and feel free to if you have
a story you'd like me to cover on Facebook, It's

Patty Steele. On Instagram reel Patty Steele. I'm Patty Steele.
The Backstories a production of iHeartMedia, Premiere Networks, the Elvis
Duran Group and Steel Trap Productions. Our producer is Doug Fraser,
our writer Jake Kushner. We have new episodes every Tuesday
and Friday. Feel free to reach out to me with

comments and even story suggestions on Instagram at real Patty
Steele and on Facebook at Patty Steele. Thanks for listening
to the Backstory with Patty Steele, the pieces of history
you didn't know you needed to know.
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