Asked what the earliest known joke is Robert Mankoff, here in this long geeky video on cartoon humor, spins a tail saying: Shortly after the Civil War. He tells a two awful early proto-jokes, one from the Greeks along with another from the century before the Civil War. He’s wrong about this as you can see from this article from last May reporting the discovery of a Roman joke book.
We are talking here about jokes, not humor. Obviously Pride and Prejudice and much of Shakespeare is hilarious, but the jokes are nonexistent. Let’s give a joke by example to help clarify, lifted from the that article on the Roman joke book:
a barber, a bald man and an absent-minded professor taking a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it’s the barber’s turn, he gets bored, so amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says “How stupid is that barber? He’s woken up the bald man instead of me.”
A joke is very brief, even one line; and it’s not really the same as a quip, like say the amusing rye observations that Jane’s father makes in Pride and Prejudice. A joke is a little stand along machine designed to trap it’s audience into laughing.
But obviously Mankoff’s version must have some grain of truth in it, since watching the video it’s clear that he has deep familiarity with the history and theory of humor. I can accept that the discovery of an ancient joke book is in fact an extremely exceptional event. Which I find entirely bizzare. If asked to guess I’d have presumed that joke books would be close on the heels of pornography as one of the first things an entrepreneurial book printer would print up for his customers. And, I gather, that many great Universities have significant collections of dusty books of porn; so why no similar collections of jokes?
That says something, I’m just not sure what. Joking seems to fundamentally human that I can’t help but presume that some serious social controls censored the behavior so it was extremely exceptional for the behavior to get up enough steam that joke books survived. Maybe something about the state of the art in joking, which is largely consistent with Mankoff’s model. Maybe something about the nature of self censorship, e.g. maybe joking was treated as more sinful than pornography and or the demand for porn displaces the limited time for making possibly sinful books for resale. Maybe it says something about archivists. Maybe all these and others?
All this reminds me of another example of human activity unknown until modern times, i.e. political demonstrations. For which similar questions could presumably be asked. I joke that it’s my right as an American to complain, and apparently it is in fact a very modern right. Maybe the right to joke is similarly modern. There are days when I think modern human culture really is entirely different from what passed prior to say 1750.
Are all these modern activities fundamentally out of scope, i.e. sufficiently suspect as to be worth vigorous suppression, for a true conservative?