Say, have you heard the one about the Abderite who saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked whether she was his wife? Upon hearing that eunuchs couldn’t take wives, the Abderite replied: “so, is she your daughter?”
Didn’t tickle your funny bone? It probably sounded better in the original Latin – along with context clues like who, exactly, the Abderite people were and why they seem to have been the ancient Roman equivalent of the “dumb blonde” archetype.
Same goes for this classic from 1600 BCE Egypt: “How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” Sure, it reads like a joke – but somewhere along the 3,700 years since it was originally recorded, the humor has sort of got lost in translation.
For true inexplicability of punchlines, though, look no further than the oldest jokes known to humanity – and not just because, you know, you literally can’t look further than that. For those, we have to go all the way back to ancient Sumer, in Mesopotamia, at what is more or less the dawn of writing itself – and what we find is as relatable as it is confusing.
Take, for instance, the record-breaker itself: the oldest joke of all. “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
Okay, it doesn’t exactly have us rolling in the aisles, but we can sort of see where the joke is coming from – evidently, young women in ancient Sumer had either a strange way of saying “I do”, or a whole lot of IBS.
More baffling, though, is the world’s oldest bar joke – also recorded in Ancient Sumerian – which runs like this: “A dog walks into a bar and says, ‘I cannot see a thing. I’ll open this one.’”
Get it? No, nor does anybody else. “I must admit, I don’t understand the punchline. I’m not quite sure what it is,” said Seraina Nett, an Assyriologist at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, in an August 2022 episode of the WBUR Endless Thread podcast.
“It could have been a pun that we don’t understand,” she explained. “It could have been a reference, I don’t know, to a local politician or some famous figure. So it’s very hard for us to tell.”
That hasn’t stopped people trying to figure it out. When the joke went viral last year, thousands of online commenters put forward their suggestions as to what the punchline meant – maybe the dog’s eyes were closed? Is the dog opening a door and seeing something he shouldn’t? Or perhaps the funny bit is some physical action that was never written down at all?
As before, the key might be in some important lost context. “The dog is a specific character type,” explained Phil Jones, associate keeper and curator of the Babylonian section at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
“It’s a guard dog whose job is to keep the wolves from the sheep,” he told Endless Thread. “And… [the joke is] operating on the basis that it’s a personality type that is fairly brutal and not really to be messed with.”
So what does Jones think the punchline means?
“I did wonder whether this is more the idea that letting the guard in negates his use,” he suggested. “Basically, he wants to see out, he’s going to open the door, and so everybody else outside the tavern can now see in.”
Hmm. It’s still no thigh-slapper in our opinion – but hey: if you’re shotgunning enough gritty beer, maybe your baseline for humor doesn’t have to be so discerning.