Those Wacky Greeks

February 19, 2009

In the new TLS, Mary Beard reviews a new book on humor in ancient Greece, and the similarities between the humor of antiquity and its modern counterpart are striking.

An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. ‘Doctor’, he said, ‘when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes.’ ‘Get up 20 minutes later, then.’

How can a modern American read that and not think of jokes like “‘Doctor, Doctor, I need to lose 20 pounds of excess fat.’ ‘I’ll amputate your head'”?

Stephen Halliwell’s Greek Laughter, the subject of Beard’s review, is not really a translation, more an analysis of the intellectual, social, and political functions of humor in the ancient world (and sounds fascinating in its own right). But we nearly wrote about a recent translation of the book known as the Philogelos, an ancient collection of the Greek equivalent of knock-knock and walking-into-a-bar jokes, late last year and then let it get away from us, so I’m glad Beard has given us a new excuse to address the topic.

You can look at some of William Berg’s translation of the Philogelos online here (registration required for more than a few pages) for a goodly selection of jokes about eunuchs, slaves, and “student dunces,” a species we’ve encountered here at eXchanges. You can also see British comedian Jim Bowen don a polyester laurel wreath and bravely perform a number of jokes to a surprisingly receptive crowd. Beard mentions Bowen’s claim that Monty Python owes its Dead Parrot sketch to the Philogelos, but does this make anyone else think of their sketch about the Funniest Joke in the World?:

Halliwell mentions in passing a series of anecdotes that tell of famous characters from antiquity who laughed so much that they died. Zeuxis, the famous fourth-century Greek painter, is one. He collapsed, it is said, after looking at his own painting of an elderly woman.

Beard also describes some of the elements contributing to the humor’s success in the modern world:

Why do they seem so modern? In the case of Jim Bowen’s performance, careful translation and selection has something to do with it (I doubt that contemporary audiences would split their sides at the one about the crucified athlete who looked as if he was flying instead of running). There is also very little background knowledge required to see the point of these stories, in contrast to the precisely topical references that underlie so many Punch cartoons. Not to mention the fact that some of Bowen’s audience are no doubt laughing at the sheer incongruity of listening to a modern comic telling 2,000-year-old gags, good or bad.

So we’re not exactly dealing with the most sophisticated brand of humor here. (I’ve also always wondered if studies would show that people at comedy clubs laugh more, thanks to laughter’s social function, than the jokes always merit, even according to their own judgment.)  Still, it gives some hope that translation might be able to grapple with humor more complex than a fart joke. With some of the obvious cultural caveats firmly in place, of course — and Beard describes some of the Greek comedy we find utterly incomprehensible today, despite Greece’s legacy in our own culture that makes so much of the rest of their humor seem so familiar — it still seems that humor is unexpectedly resilient.



One Response to “Those Wacky Greeks”

  1. newman Says:

    good post,


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