The Oldest Recorded Joke: Apparently, Flatulence Has Always Been Funny

Did you hear about the two silkworms who had a race? They ended up in a tie.

Okay, that joke may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine. Back in college, my closest friend and I almost made a career out of punning. At one point it got so bad, it seemed pathological. We couldn’t get through a two-minute conversation without a pun, and sometimes we even spoke to the professors that way. I once spent an evening before my literature exam sewing the bottom of my pajamas rather than studying, and claimed it was okay because I was “earnestly hemming away.” When my sister flew back to California after a brief visit to India with her infant son, my friend wondered if the baby was now “disoriented.” When one of our peers moved to Philadelphia to attend UPenn, we went on a rampage about how she was “penning” a new chapter in her life, and how despite the excitement, we could also “feel-her-dull-fear.” (Phi-la-del-phia, get it?) Honestly, if there was a BuzzFeed quiz titled “What Kind of Joke Are You?,” we’d be “Bad Pun: To tell you the truth, you’re a lot less smart than you think you are. Your peers initially humored you (Ha! See what I did there?) but are now tired of your silly manipulations of the language. Frankly, even nerdy jokes are cooler than you are.”

Recently this college friend visited Boyfriend and me, and while she and I had tumbled to the floor laughing tears at our own jokes, Boyfriend remained perched on the edge of the couch, rolling his eyes at us. Then, in that brief moment of silence between our raucous, snorting laughter and the conjuring of more puns, he interjected with this:

“Did you know the oldest recorded joke in human history is a fart joke?”

Clearly, science, technology, and trips to the moon notwithstanding, some parts of the human brain have just not evolved over the last four thousand years.

The earliest recorded joke can be traced back to the Sumerians of 1900 BC. It goes this way: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Of course, once the floodgates of vulgarity had been opened, there was no looking back. Since then there have been records of scatological and ribald humor over time and across cultures. In 1600 BC the Egyptians had a riddle about King Snefru, the pharaoh at the time: “How do you entertain a pharaoh? Sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishnets down the Nile, and urge the pharaoh to go fishing.” An Egyptian hieroglyph from around the same period states: “Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey – his purse is what restrains him.”

In the 1st century BC, the Romans came up with a risque who’s-your-father joke: Emperor Augustus was touring his kingdom, and upon seeing a man who looked much like himself he asked, “Did your mother ever serve at the royal palace?” The man replied, “No, your Majesty. But my father did.” And in the 5th century AD, as a witty call back to the magnificent source of all farts, someone left a scroll in a cave in Athens that read, “Sydromachus has an ass as big as a cistern.”

More recently, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, during the Edo period of Japan, someone made a bunch of truly delightful works of art depicting what is, apparently, the human race’s single greatest weapon:

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I know you want to see more of these. Go here.

I can’t help thinking there is something truly beautiful and touching about the universality and longevity of fart jokes. Humanity is fractured along so many fault lines, sometimes irreparably so. But at that moment in the Arabian Nights when Abu Hassan, upon sitting down next to his coy bride after a heavy wedding meal, lets out a historically loud fart, or that scene in Dances With Wolves, where Timmons turns his butt towards Dunbar’s face, lets one out, and says, laughing, “You should put that in your book,” we feel a connection to the essence of what makes us human. When we read about James Joyce’s famous fart fetish, or buy our first whoopie cushion and plot a prank, we move a step closer to the core of siblinghood and blood bonds with the rest of humanity, no matter how different we may otherwise be: we all fart.

Of course, if you still don’t get it, this video of Louis CK, one of the greatest comedians alive, explicating the fart to Jon Stewart, will ‘clear the air’ for you, so to speak:

P.S.: I have a friend who complains that her roommate’s cat farts with impunity in her face. I hear it’s not an altogether uncommon problem. For those of you suffering the same, this may make you feel happy:

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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