Wednesday 27 May 2009

A brief history of Jokes (Part III)

Civilisation began, and the civilisations of the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians, swiftly succeeded each other. Nothing remains of their jokes. As Erich von Daniken sagely points out, “[Nature] allows dressed blocks of stone to survive for 5,000 years [but not] the thickest iron girders.” What hope then for jokes? However, judging from the remains of their monuments and inscriptions, it all looked like a great deal of fun.

Around 1500 BCE God decided it would be a good idea to get involved in religion, and institute monotheism. It would make everything a lot simpler, He thought. Accordingly, He revealed himself to Moses in the form of the Burning Bush, and at the same time created the World’s first Knock Knock joke. The Lord called out of the midst of the bush, saying Moses, Moses. And Moses replied:

Who’s there?
God: I am.
Moses: I am Who?
God: I am Who I am.

The Word could not believe it! He’d been hanging around with God for millions upon millions of years and he’d never even suspected He had a sense of humour. And then He goes and pulls one out of the hat like that! Absolutely unbelievable.

Unfortunately, after this shining start, monotheism didn’t live up to its promise. It ended up being lots of rules and regulations. A lot of telling people what to do, and no jokes.

But what did you say? ... Egypt? Have I forgotten to mention the incredible explosion of jokes that was ancient Egypt? Where lotus flowers bloomed in quiet pools while the construction of enormous jokes went on day and night out in the desert? Where thousands of slaves hauled vast blocks of stone to be fitted together into the seamless jokes that still fascinate us thousands of years later? Where every detail of their jokes (set-up, digression, punchline) was carved in mysterious hieroglyphics and sealed in dark passages as pledges for eternity? And where the statues of the Pharaohs have the quiet look and flickering smile of someone who knows a very good joke but isn’t going to tell you just yet?

No, I have not forgotten Egypt.

Friday 22 May 2009

The other guests at the dinner party were all specialists of one kind or another. There was an archaeologist, a meteorologist, and a sociologist. And poor old Steve. He tried to keep up with conversation, to get the gist.

A brief history of Jokes (Part II)

More millions of years passed. The tiny shrew-like creatures in the trees turned into ape-like creatures, with a keen sense of sight, prehensile hands and a rubbish sense of smell. These ape-like creatures then came down from the trees, stood up on two legs, and developed ever more complicated vocalisations with which to communicate. It was the Dawn of jokes.

Surprisingly, the very earliest jokes appear to have been puns. In 1976 palaeontologists discovered the first evidence of puns as imprints in volcanic ash at Laetoli in Tanzania. These two tracks of punning, running side by side, were dated as 3.6 million years old and estimated to have been made by individuals, one 140, the other 120 centimetres tall.

However, the archaeological record for much of the Palaeolithic is notoriously thin on jokes. When we reach the Neolithic it becomes evident that puns have gone out of fashion and been replaced by the simpler joke of pointing at one thing and calling it something else. The plentiful evidence of artefacts allows for many entertaining reconstructions of this kind of joke:

(pointing to an aurochs): “ha ha ha mammoth !”
“ha ha !”
(pointing to a tree): “ha ha ha reindeer !”
“ha ha !”
(pointing): “Cave Bear!”
“ha ha !”
“No! Cave Bear!”
“aaa ... aaaah !!”

Meanwhile, in a stunning example of parallel evolution, crows were developing their own sense of humour. Of course, these jokes cannot be translated. (Just as, according to Wittgenstein, if a lion was to tell us a joke, we wouldn't actually understand it.*) Pictured are some of the highlights in the development of jokes among crows:

One result of this was that, as he listened in the evening to the cawing of crows and rooks around his encampments, Early Man would always have the feeling that someone, somewhere, knew a better joke than he did.

(*Alternatively, we might roar with laughter.)

Friday 15 May 2009

The warriors of the Stone Age tribe were ill-prepared and were still making their weapons when the neighbouring Stone Age tribe attacked. Basically, they were caught knapping.

Literary Adaptation no. 1

Last night I dreamt I went to Hawker’s Pot again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me ... Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The jokes, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The puns with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their punchlines intermingled in a strange embrace ... And there were other witticisms as well, witticisms that I did not recognise, parodies and absurd theories that straggled cheek by jowl with the puns, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with all sorts of other monstrous nonsense, none of which I remembered.

(from du Maurier: Rebecca)

A man lay dying from a snake bite in the desert. He said to me: “Do you have the snake bite antidote?” I said: “Better than that, I have the snake bite anecdote: A man lay dying from a snake bite in the desert. He said to me: ‘Do you have the snake bite antidote?’ I said: ‘...’”

(A word from the Reverend Hawker: The reader will notice that this is an example of a paradox of infinite regress. Since the narrator will never reach the end of his story, we can safely assume that the snakebite victim will never actually die from the bite. However, the anecdote cannot be said to be as effective as an antidote, since it will not cure the stricken man. Rather, the man will linger in a state of perpetual dying, to which (like to so many of the jokes in this collection) a swift death would be preferable.

A quick reply to the Reverend H: Although, perhaps, the narrator’s endless story may have nothing to do with the time the poison takes to run its course. We’ve all been there. Someone else talks, and we feel like we’re dying.)

Sunday 10 May 2009

He was a knight errant. Wherever he went he encountered damsels in distress, noble families in misfortune, the evil works of dragons, giants and enchanters. But he never complained. It was just his job. Another day, another dolour, he’d say.

A brief history of Jokes (Part I)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word liked a joke. But for many billions of years nothing happened, nothing at all, until finally there were some planets and suns. Planets and suns make their own kind of jokes (see Olaf Stapledon: Starmaker) but in their own slow, cumbersome, predictable sort of way, which wasn’t really what the Word was after. Finally, however, Life began to emerge out of the Primordial ooze.

On reflection (said the Word) when the first amphibian crawled out of the water onto the land, that was pretty funny. It had the hallmarks of incongruity and surprise: Something from the water crawling on the land! Nothing like that had ever happened before! But it wasn’t much to be getting on with for yet more millions of years. And then, for 160 million years, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. There were still no jokes. (Are you beginning to feel a bit sorry for the Word yet?)

Of course, some pretty hilarious things happened while the dinosaurs were ruling the Earth. First, there was the question of scale: some of the dinosaurs were tiny, and some of them were huge! When a really small dinosaur stood next to a really big one, that could be quite funny. Also, there were some very entertaining pratfalls. Once, there was this time, around 65 million years ago, when a tyrannosaurus was chasing a triceratops, and the triceratops tripped, did a complete flip and landed upside down, on its back! That was pretty hilarious. And then there were all those times when smaller dinosaurs ran into trees ...

But, all in all, the Word was pretty happy when a cataclysmic event wiped the dinosaurs off the face of the Earth. He’d had enough of them, I don’t know, about 150 million years previously. Also, during this period, he’d realised that, no matter how funny something is, you need someone to tell about it for it to stay funny. (Things aren’t that funny when you’re on your own.) So, when tiny shrew-like creatures climbed up into the trees, and left their other shrew-like brethren on the ground, the Word thought: Thank God. At least, it’s a start.

“You’ve got to bear with me,” I said. “Why should I?” you replied. You weren’t happy about the dismembered animals, the ripped wallpaper, the rank turds on the carpet. "Um," I said, “I’ve got a bear with me.”

Thursday 7 May 2009

After a series of robberies the Police brought in the Man of Brass for questioning. When he came out twenty-four hours later he looked years older. The Police admitted they’d given him the verdigris.

They were a couple who argued about everything, just for the sake of it. When they went shopping it was less of the Co-operative, more of the Spar.