Garden of Eden, Dawn of Time. Adam awakens to find Eve lying beside him. In no time he is riffing on the differences between men and women (“She’s got me wearing this fig leaf now — what’s up with that?” — Genesis 2:27).
Lascaux, France, c. 15,000 B.C. In a fire-lit cave, an unknown Cro-Magnon Man pantomimes the first crude mother-in-law joke. Through grunts and gestures, he suggests a similarity between his own mate’s mother and a wooly rhinoceros. The bit goes over big with the tribe, but his mate is not amused. He spends the night in the cave of the domesticated dogs.
The Babylonian Empire, c. 1800 B.C. The Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers brings forth an abundance of produce. It is here, in this land of plenty, that a sledgehammer is first used to smash a watermelon, splattering the multitudes and causing great hilarity.
Athens, Greece, c. 1500 B.C. Daedalus addresses the elder statesmen, telling them: “I just flew in from Crete and, boy, are my arms tired.” The line gets a big laugh even though he is telling the truth—he has just flown in, using wings of his own design. Then he adds: “And what about that in-flight food!” and the place goes nuts.
Egypt, c. 1400 B.C. The venerable tradition of Jewish standup begins with Moses. Appearing regularly at Pharaoh’s court, he gets big yuks with his signature line, “Let my people go!” His Ten Plagues routine also knocks ’em dead. With his brother Aaron as straight man, he develops a large following and takes his act all over Sinai, in a career that spans some forty years.
Sparta, c. 1200 B.C. Menalaus, king of Sparta, entertains Paris of Troy with a monologue about married life that concludes with the line: “Take my wife…please!” Everyone enjoys a good laugh, then Paris excuses himself and absconds with the queen of Sparta. The Trojan War ensues; thousands are slaughtered. Menalaus’s witticism becomes known as “The quip that launched a thousand ships,” though this is bowdlerized over the centuries.
Athens, 428 B.C. Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, also fathers the doctor joke. As recorded by Pythagoras in his treatise Jokes, Riddles and a Theorem, it goes like this:
Patient: Well, Doctor of Physic, have you identified the nature of my ailment?
Hippocrates: I fear you have but a short span of life remaining.
Patient: What! I think it would be wise for me to seek another opinion!
Hippocrates: Very well — your features are displeasing to the eye as well!
Rome, First Century A.D. With the rise of the Roman Empire, standup thrives, though most routines of the era rely on familiar Greek jokes with the names changed. Caesar’s Palace becomes the leading showcase for standup, and comics from every corner of the empire come to amuse the rulers of the known world. Most of the Caesars are receptive, but Caligula is a notoriously tough audience who feels that comedians are funniest when torn apart by wolverines.
York, England, c. 1350. The Black Death is ravaging Europe, and even a good comedian can expect 30% of his audience to succumb before he completes his set. In this grim setting, a jester named Festes, sensing the crowd has become unresponsive, first says: “I know you’re out there — I can hear you breathing!”
Madrid, 1492. Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition — a man renowned for his frequent flights of whimsical japery — tells a series of jokes that all begin: “A priest and a rabbi are out in a rowboat…” Torquemada’s first attempts suffer from a certain predictability, as they all conclude with the priest rowing back alone. The form has since been refined by other hands.
London, 1618. Awaiting execution in the Tower of London, Sir Walter Raleigh invents the knock-knock joke. He attracts the attention of a guard, and the following exchange takes place:
Raleigh: Knock knock!
Guard: Who’s there?
Guard: Doublet who?
Raleigh: Whatever they pay you, I’ll doublet if you get me out of here.
James I is so amused by these antics that he immediately calls off Raleigh’s hanging and has him beheaded instead.
Washington, 1844. Samuel Morse offends conventional sensibilities with his “Seven Words You Can’t Send in a Telegram” routine. Outrage is so widespread that Morse is reduced to performing his routine in code to avoid persecution, though his punch line “dot dash dot dash dot dash!” remains a classic.
Boston, 1876. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, also invents the one-sided phone conversation. His punch line “Watson, come quick! I want you!” — followed by the bustling entrance of his breathless assistant — never fails to get an ovation.
New Jersey, 1878. Thomas Edison holds patents on more than 500 items still used by prop comedians today, including the arrow-through-the-head, the giant baby pacifier, and the hat with rearview mirrors. His invention of the light bulb popularizes two separate but equally fertile comic themes, light bulb jokes and New Jersey. More significantly, Edison’s light bulb evolves into the stage spotlight, which in turn provides the iconic image of the standup comedian: eyes shielded with the edge of the hand, looking out into the audience to ask, “Is anyone here from Brooklyn?”
Paris, 1882. Louis Pasteur, addressing the French Academy, opens by saying “Good evening, ladies and viruses!” The distinguished audience reacts with confused silence. He then tries “ladies and bacteria,” with the same stony results. Drenched in flop-sweat, Pasteur has a sudden inspiration and says: “Good evening, ladies and germs!” The crowd, the building — indeed, the whole arrondissement — are convulsed in wave after wave of bellylaughs, which can be heard as far away as Marseilles.
Vienna, 1910. Sigmund Freud entertains at a psychoanalysts’ smoker, performing under the name “Siegfried Roy.” He slays them with a joke that concludes: “So Oedipus says, ‘That was no woman — that was my mother!'” Carl Jung, appearing as “Henny Jungman,” provides the rimshot. Jung later broke with Freud over the question of whether the audience was laughing with them or at them. Jung believed they were laughing with them; Freud believed they are laughing at Jung.
Chicago, 1923. Elliot Ness, perhaps the greatest comedian of the Roaring Twenties, pioneers the “man walks into a bar” joke, a staple of the comic’s repertoire to this day. Ness’s very first “man walks into a bar” joke, in its entirety, reads: “A man walks into a bar.” This was enough to send Prohibition audiences into stitches. With the repeal of the Volstead Act, Ness’s career falters.
London, 1939. Winston Churchill emerges as the first full-fledged insult comic. A master of the form, Churchill’s put-downs range from the elegant (“He’s a modest man with a good deal to be modest about”) to the devastating (“Have a cookie, you hockey puck”).
Boca Raton, 1986. An unknown called Carrot Top takes the stage during Open Mike Night at Florida Atlantic University. A new Golden Age of Comedy begins.