Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Till It Hurts

Dear Laughter Lovers,

One of the first joke books, dating from fourth century B.C., was the Philogelos—which means “laughter lover” in Greek. It has 265 jokes that I’m sure killed back then, but most now are either lethally lame or incomprehensible. Examples:

No. 53. An intellectual was eating dinner with his father. On the table was a large lettuce with many succulent shoots. The intellectual suggested: “Father, you eat the children; I'll take mother.”

No. 64. An intellectual bought a pair of pants. But he could hardly put them on because they were too tight. So he got rid of the hair around his legs.

The jokes in the Philogelos have eggheads, incompetents, fools, gluttons, jokesters, drunks, misogynists, and people with bad breath, but, surprise, no animals. Not one. No quipping New Yorker cartoon dogs, or cutesy cats. And the vast potential of LOLcats remained untapped for millennia.

Why no animals? I’m blaming it on Aristotle, who in his Poetics said, “Only man between animals can laugh.” Later, in his Grammatics, he changed the “between” to “among,” and everyone pretty much agreed with him after that.

A couple of millennia later, but still way before LOLcats, the essayist William Hazlitt essayed that “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”

(From the Desk of Bob Mankoff)

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