Old jokes

Old jokes

Aug 2022


I’ve noticed a disturbing phenomenon: Many people who only recently watched the US version of The Office seem to think that Michael Scott invented That’s what she said.

Of course, the actual joke was supposed to be a ghoulish delight at seeing someone cluelessly use a joke that was so old and tired.

(I can’t enjoy this kind of thing—I feel only agony. Why enjoy this and not videos of people falling off of skateboards? But I guess most people are different.)

Anyway, I’ve often explained that the joke dates back to the 90s, well before The Office. But I was a fool. Look at the last paragraph of this page from EgoSpeak: Why No One Listens to You:

page from quipspeak

This joke was already “ancient” when this book was published—in 1973.

It’s not clear when the joke started. Wikipedia traces it back to Said the actress to the bishop (as deployed by David Brent in the original UK version of The Office). But the origins of that phrase aren’t clear either. It was popular with the Royal Air Force in late World War II, but some speculate it started in the Edwardian era (1901-1910). Wikipedia also states that the playwright Tom Elitch “is credited” with coining the term in the late 1800s. But the citation makes no sense as it mentions neither the joke nor Elitch. Maybe the joke was born old.


Here’s another joke:

Two neighbors were fighting over a financial dispute. They couldn’t reach an agreement, so they took their case to the local rabbi. The rabbi heard the first litigant’s case, nodded his head and said, “You’re right.”

The second litigant then stated his case. The rabbi heard him out, nodded again and said, “You’re also right.”

The rabbi’s attendant, who had been standing by this whole time, was justifiably confused. “But, rebbe,” he asked, “how can they both be right?”

The rav thought about this for a moment before responding, “You’re right, too!”

This is a good joke. It’s also old—a version was in Fiddler on the Roof.

But did you know it’s seven hundred years old? The original seems to come from Nasreddin Hodja, a philosopher/satirist in modern-day Turkey that lived from 1208-1285:

He was deeply impressed by the eloquence of the plaintiff, and after hearing his evidence he exclaimed, “I believe you are right!”

The clerk of the court explained that he should make no such comment until he had heard the case for the defense. Having done so, Nasruddin cried out, “I believe you are right!”

“But they can’t both be right,” expostulated the clerk.

“I believe you are right,” said the Mulla.

There are many other stories from Nasreddin. Some of them aren’t bad:

One day, a thief came to the house of the Hodja and took everything he had except the blanket which covered him. When the Hodja saw the thief carrying all his things away, he put his blanket over his shoulders and followed him.

When the thief arrived at his own house, he turned back and saw the Hodja. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “What am I doing here”, said the Hodja, “you ask a thing like that? Didn’t we move to this house?”

Hodja’s wife was pregnant. One night, her labor pains started and Hodja called the neighbors and the midwife. Soon they called out from his wife’s room and said, “Hodja! You have a son!”

He was very happy. A few minutes later the midwife called out again, “Hodja! You also have a girl.”

After a little while, she called out again, “Hodja! You have another girl!”

Hodja, who had been waiting in front of his wife’s room, rushed into the room and blew out the candle.

“What are you doing?” asked the surprised women.

“Well! Everyone who sees the light wants to come out. What else can I do?” he answered.


But what about really old jokes? Apparently, the world’s oldest surviving collection of jokes is the Philogelos. It was written in Ancient Greek, perhaps in the 4th century AD.

It’s not the oldest collection of jokes. It’s recorded that seven centuries earlier, Philip II (Alexander’s father) paid for a club in Athens to write down its jokes, but this is lost.

Anyway, I wondered what people thought was funny in the past, so I read a translation from 1920.

I found six main categories of jokes.

Category 1: Horrible thing happens to a person

A lot of the jokes are basically, “Once there was this guy and one day he suffered some monstrous violence/accident and was in lots of pain and then died.”

There are a lot of eunuchs and slavery and pain and disfigurement. Somehow, the fact that these appear randomly amidst more innocent jokes makes them extra disturbing. I’m not going to repeat any of these, but I guess they show that The Office-esque agony humor has much earlier and more extreme precedents?

Category 2: Total failure

This is the largest category. You can see what’s being attempted, but the joke utterly fails. Sometimes it fails so hard that it almost works as anti-humor.

Overwhelmingly these are a variant of “Once this guy did something dumb.

A pedant was looking for his book for many days but could not find it. By chance as he was eating lettuce and turned a certain corner he saw the book lying there. Later meeting a friend who was lamenting the loss of his girdle, he said, “Do not worry but buy some lettuces and eat them at the corner, when you turn it and go a little ways you will find it.”

A pedant having purchased a stolen amphora covered it with pitch in order that it might not be recognized.

Another person who was going away wrote to a pedant that he should buy him some books. But he regarded the request lightly and said to him on his return, “I did not receive your letter which you sent concerning the books.”

Category 3: Cumaeans are stupid

I’m not sure what the Cumaeans did to deserve this, but there’s a whole section with jokes like this:

A Cumaean was in swimming when it began to rain and in order not to get wet he went down into the deep water.

A physician gave up on a sick Cumaean in despair, and he getting well, shunned the physician. Being asked the reason, he said, “He told me I was going to die, and I am ashamed to be alive.”

Category 4: Just really confusing

It’s unclear how this solution is related to the problem being faced:

A pedant had purchased a pair of breeches and since they were very tight and he had difficulty in getting into them, he pulled all the hair off himself.

The translator also appears to be confused about this. He has a note that the Greek might also be translated as “daubed himself with pitch” and suggests there “may be some hidden meaning here”.

This next joke is my favorite in the entire book, but I don’t think I’m enjoying it on the intended level:

A shrewd fellow whilst wrestling fell into the mud and in order that he might not seem to be clumsy, he got up entirely covered with mud and stood conceitedly through the whole contest.

Category 5: Actually sort of funny

Really, these aren’t bad:

A sick pedant bargained with a physician to give him a fee if he should cure him. When his wife found fault with him for drinking wine in a fever, he said, “Do you wish for me to be cured so that I shall be obliged to give the physician a reward?”

One of the twin brothers died and a pedant meeting the survivor asked him, “Did you die, or was it your brother?”

A son was born to a pedant. Being asked by someone what name would be given him, he replied, “He shall have my name, and I shall get along somehow.”

A peevish person was playing dice when a certain shiftless one sitting down spread himself out. Becoming angry he asked him, “Of what trade are you, and why are you idle?” When he answered “I am a tailor but I have no work,” tearing his cloak and giving it to him, he said, “Take it, get busy, and keep quiet.”

A cowardly pugilist was being continually pounded by his adversary, he cried out, “I beg of you, not all at once.”

Category 6: Meditations on game theory

Some seem less like jokes and more like traps for Schelling.

In Abdera an ass entered the gymnasium unseen and upset the olive oil. The citizens assembling sent for all the asses in the city. Having brought them into one place, as a warning, they flogged the ass before them all.

A pedant having fallen into a pit called out continually to summon help. When no one answered, he said to himself, “I am a fool if I do not give all a beating when I get out in order that in the future they shall answer me and furnish me with a ladder.”

Genuinely unsure if the pedant’s strategy is sound.

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