One of the most outstanding evidences of comic genius humanity has ever produced would undoubtedly have to be Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch. In the sketch, a Mr Praline enters a pet shop to register a complaint about a dead Norwegian Blue parrot he has recently purchased, just as the shopkeeper is preparing to close the establishment for lunch. Despite being told the bird is deceased and that it had been nailed to its perch, the proprietor insists that it is “pining for the fjords” or simply “stunned”. What is little known is that this joke is a direct descendant of one told in ancient Greece approximately 1,600 years previously. It goes something like this: a man buys a slave who is highly praised by its owner. Soon after, the slave dies. Enraged, the purchaser goes to the seller to complain. “By the gods,” answers the slave’s seller when confronted, “when he was with me, he never did any such thing!” Queue drum and cymbals here.
We know of this joke because it exists in what would most likely have to be the oldest surviving joke-book ever to have been written, the Philogelos, or ‘laugh addict’. Attributed to the Laurel and Hardy of the times, Hierokles and Philagrios, about whom we know almost nothing, it comprises some two hundred and sixty five jokes. As one of the jokes refers to the celebrations for the thousand year anniversary of the founding of Rome, scholars are able to date the book to the third or fourth century AD, that is, at the crucial period in world history where the pagan world was giving way to the Christian one. While it is the oldest surviving compendium of mirth and frivolity, Athenaeus attests to the otherwise dour Phillip II of Macedon paying for a social club in Athens to write down its members’ jokes, and at the beginning of the second century BC, Plautus, a re-fashioner of Greek literature into Latin, twice has a character mentioning books of jokes, suggesting that such collections formed an important part of ancient culture.
One of the disturbing elements of Philogelos’ jokes is how many of them survive, almost unaltered, to the present day, suggesting that comedians truly have evolved little from their ancient counterparts. Take for example this joke which I first heard in Greece in 1994, as a part of the Greek ‘Totos’ genre of anecdotes, and which forms joke 45 of the Philogelos collection: “An intellectual during the night ravished his grandmother and for this got a beating from his father. He complained: ‘You’ve been mounting my mother for a long time, without suffering any consequences from me. And now you’re mad that you found me screwing your mother for the first time ever!’.” Appallingly yuk … and yet…
Philogelos is divided up into categories. There are the intellectual jokes, ie. jokes about smart-asses, and of course the precursor of Pontian jokes – these being jokes about Abderites or Cymaeans, who receive particularly bad-press, hence: “A Cymaean is out swimming when it starts to rain. Not wanting to get wet, he dives down as deep as he can…” One can imagine Hierokles and Philagrios lying on a couch at a symposium, kylix in hand, delivering the lines in complete dead-pan fashion, as is fitting to the concise and succinct tomes of ancient Greek: “Κυμαῖος ἐν τῶι κολυμβᾶν βροχῆς γενομένης δία τὸ μὴ βραχῆναι εἰς τὸ βάθος κατέδυ.” The said gentleman goes on to blunder his way through the joke-book thus: “A Cymaean was purchasing a window and asked whether it was south-facing.” (Κυμαῖος θυρίδας ἀγοράζων ἠρώτα εἰ δύνανται πρὸς μεσημβρίαν βλέπειν.)
Another anecdote which survives in Greece to the present day as a Pontian joke is as follows: There was a scholar, a bald man and a barber who were travelling together. Forced to spend the night in a desert place, they agreed to take turns to keep watch over their possessions. The barber was to take the first watch, then the scholar, then the bald man. Just prior to ending his watch, the barber, by way of a prank, shaved the head of the scholar and woke him up. The scholar, touching his head and finding he was bald, cried out: “What an idiot the barber is. He has awoken the bald one instead of me.” The expletive applied to the barber in the original is “μέγα κάθαρμα͵” which is still commonly used today.
On occasion, the social or cultural context of the joke is obscure and we struggle to be amused. Thus: “A ship’s helmsman was asked which [wind] was blowing. He answered, ‘fava and onions’.” (“Εὐτράπελος κυβερνήτης ἐρωτηθείς͵ τί φυσᾷ͵ εἶπε· Φάβα καὶ κρόμυα.”). This is obviously a flatulence-themed joke, where the question “what blows?” also can mean “which foods produce flatulence.” By the time the explanation is over, not even a smirk is produced, though this joke is significant in that it attests a very ancient provenance to the staple Greek foodstuff, fava.
Proving that humanity has been inspired by the same themes and motifs for millennia, one of Philogelos’ jokes appears to be an eerie precursor of Hitchcock’s thriller Strangers on a Train, where two strangers meet on a train. One suggests that because they each want to ‘get rid’ of someone, they should ‘exchange’ murders, and that way neither will get caught. In the Philogelos version, there are two men who hate their fathers. One suggests to the other: “Let’s choke them.” “Are you kidding,” the other one responds. “They will call us patricides.” “In that case, you kill mine, and I’ll kill yours,” the first one ripostes. (“Σχολαστικοὶ δύο πατραλοῖαι ἐδυσφόρουν πρὸς ἀλλήλους ἐπὶ τῷ τοὺς πατέρας αὐτῶν ζῆν. τοῦ δὲ ἑνὸς εἰπόντος· Θέλεις οὖν ἀποπνίξει ἕκαστος ἡμῶν τὸν ἴδιον; Μὴ γένοιτο͵ εἶπεν ὁ ἄλλος͵ ἵνα μὴ πατραλοῖαι ἀκούσωμεν. ἀλλ΄ εἰ βούλει͵ σὺ τὸν ἐμὸν σφάξον͵ κἀγὼ τὸν σόν.”)
An entire section of Philogelos is comprised of jokes about misogynists. One of these was burying his wife when he was asked “who is resting in peace?”. “I am,” he replied. (“Μισογυναίκου τὴν γυναῖκα κηδεύοντος ἠρώτησέ τις· Τίς ἀνεπαύσατο; ὁ δὲ ἔφη· Ἐγὼ ὁ ταύτης στερηθείς.”) There is even, as in modern joke-books, a section devoted to doctor jokes, some of which are cringingly verging upon the unfunny, thus: “A student goes to the doctor, saying, ‘Doctor! When I wake up, I’m all dizzy. Then after half an hour I feel fine.’ ‘Well wait half an hour before waking up,’ advises the doctor.” (“Σχολαστικῷ τις ἰατρῷ προσελθὼν εἶπεν· Ἰατρέ͵ὅταν ἀναστῶ ἐκ τοῦ ὕπνου͵ ἡμιώριον ἐσκότωμαι καὶ εἶθ΄ οὕτως ἀποκαθίσταμαι. καὶ ὁ ἰατρός· Μετὰ τὸ ἡμιώριον ἐγείρου.”)
If anything, Philogelos proves we denizens of the modern era are touchingly close to our ancient counterparts when it comes to our sense of humour. It is somehow comforting to know that after two thousand years of technological development, we still find flatulence and fornication amusing. In this, as in many other things, Philogelos has the final word: “A young man says to his concupiscent wife: ‘What shall we do? Eat or go to bed?’ ‘Whatever you wish,’ she replies, ‘but there is no bread in the house.'” (“Νεανίσκος πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα οὖσαν ἀσελγῆ εἶπε· Κυρία͵ τί ποιοῦμεν; ἀριστοῦμεν ἢ ἀφροδισιάζομεν; κἀκείνη πρὸς αὐτὸν ἔφη· Ὡς θέλεις·ψωμὶν οὐκ ἔστιν.”)
Until next time, happy ‘aphrodising’.

* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist