The identity of the world's oldest joke can now be revealed thanks to the Dave Historical Humour Study carried out by one Paul McDonald.
The Dave in question, otherwise known as "the home of witty banter", is one of the ten digital television channels broadcast by UKTV which was "recently rebranded" in order to "appeal to male-skewed auds", although like the rest of UKTV's output its content consists almost entirely of wall-to-wall repeats of BBC programmes such as Red Dwarf, Top Gear, QI, Have I Got News For You, Little Britain, etc, etc. Nevertheless the channel decided to commission the study in order to promote or celebrate what was described as a "night of top notch stand-up comedy", being 'Live at the Apollo' broadcast on the 2nd August 2008.
The author of the study was Dr Paul McDonald, senior lecturer in American Literature at the University of Wolverhampton's School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, and the author of such novels as Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle which apparently "puts Walsall on the map in the way that Dante’s Inferno did with hell", as well being the author of such academic tracts as Stand up Comedy as Poetry: Transcendentalism and Romantic Anti-Capitalism in the Work of Bill Hicks. Having been chosen to carry out the study, it apparently took Dr McDonald and his "five-strong team of scholars" more than three months to complete as they "trawled the internet, contacted dozens of museums, and spoke to numerous private book collectors".
It can therefore be revealed that the world's oldest joke can be found in the Sumerian Proverb Collection which is dated to the period 1900-1600 BC, and goes like this;
"Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap".
A close second was the joke found in the Westcar Papyrus dating to 1600 BC; "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"; although perhaps the funniest was the one credited to the Emperor Augustus (63BC - 29AD) which asserts that the Emperor was once on tour when he noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to himself. He therefore asked the man "Was your mother at one time in service at the Palace?", to which the man replied, "No your Highness, but my father was". An honourable mention should go to the Egyptian hieroglyphic joke; "Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey - his purse is what restrains him".
However although the Dave Historical Humour Study produced a purported list of the world's ten oldest jokes, it should be noted that numbers 9 and 10 both come from the Philogelos, which is actually a fourth century collection of some two hundred and sixty-five jokes. There was no explanation as to why the two selected should be given primacy over the other two hundred or so, and it is difficult to believe that the entire corpus of classical literature together with sundry surviving Sumerian, Babylonian and Egyptian texts can be found to contain only eight examples of humour. As McDonald explained, only those jokes that were "amusing in an historical and modern context" were included, so presumably a great deal of ancient humour was therefore excluded from consideration.
Incidentally Britain's oldest joke can be found in the Codex Exoniensis or Exeter Codex which dates from the tenth century and takes the the form of a riddle; What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Clear evidence therefore that the British sense of humour has always shown a preference for smut.
- Stephen Adams, The world's oldest jokes revealed by university research, Daily Telegraph, 01 Aug 2008
- The world's ten oldest jokes
- Quite Interesting Facts: The world's ten oldest jokes
- Dr Paul McDonald
- Steve Clarke, BBC bids to take over UKTV, Variety, Dec. 10, 2007