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You can’t teach a new dog old jokes April 11, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Entertainment.

What role has comedy played in human history? It’s a fascinating question, one that mankind has been pondering for five, six, at least seven seconds, ever since I started writing this sentence. Well, with the Melbourne Comedy Festival happening at the moment, I thought it would be the ideal opportunity to give a pocket history of humour, from the earliest ape-like forms of man, all the way through the millenniums, to Robyn Williams, the most recent ape-like form of man.

Approximately three million years ago, at around 8pm on a Tightarse Tuesday Open Mike Comedy Night, the first primitive cavemen started dabbling with humour, but because they were so hairy-faced, and badly dressed, and had a poorly evolved voicebox, they found it easiest just to do drug jokes. They’d stand in front of their tribe, holding a handful of coca leaves and a pot of cava, and just mumble stoner-routines about how they were sitting round with Macca all day, licking poisonous frogs, then they went outside and tried to ride a mastodon. If the tribe liked the act, they’d stamp and cheer with delight, and if they didn’t, they’d yell “Not funny! You’re crap! Australopithecus off!”

Carved into the side of an ancient Mesopotamian temple wall, archaeologists have uncovered 4000-year-old hieroglyphs which have turned out to be highly sophisticated ironic jokes: for instance one riddle reads “Owl, basket, boat with sails, flat hand?” and directly underneath, the punchline, “Ibis”, which is so funny and clever, because you’re expecting “Curly snake”. Another joke goes like this: “Eye, river currents, small bird, small bird”, which manages to be hilariously suggestive, without resorting to a single crude “Vulture”. Unfortunately, just like today, nobody really understood ironic humour, so most Mesopotamian comedians just went back to smoking hemp and doing drug jokes.

By the 5th century BC, Greek civilisation was flourishing, and Greek humour was all the rage: some of history’s greatest playwrights, including Sophocles, Aristophanes and Giannopoulos, were writing comic plays like You Can’t Teach An Old Wog New Tricks, Where did the Daygo? and When You’re Dancing, Greek to Greek. However soon this ethnic humour became wearisome and repetitive and audiences stopped buying tickets, so the great Greek playwrights turned their attention to more serious dramas about metaphysics, democracy, and human tragedy, except for Giannopoulos, who kept going with How Much Is That Woggy In The Window?

During the reign of King James the First, the wittiest and waggiest English joke-tellers emerged: Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and John Donne were wowing the comedy clubs of London, take note of this classic John Donne routine: “If ever any beauty I did see, which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee”, which has not been surpassed in poetic excellence, at least until Rodney Rude’s “Heyyyy trendsetters, I just rooted ya mum, it was like ridin’ a giant turtle, hehhhhhhh heh-heh-heh!” Interestingly enough, Francis Bacon’s essay, The Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Humane, was originally titled 1001 All-Time Funniest Golf Quips and Quotes.

Cezanne, Degas and Renoir led an exciting new comedy movement in the late 1800s, delighting audiences with impressions of Parisian celebrities and famous politicians, and Renoir did a very funny Eiffel Tower, just standing really still for hours, letting ants run up his face. Manet and Monet did such terrific impressions of each other, that even to this day, nobody’s really sure who is who. But by the end of the 1800s, impressionism had lost its sparkle: the public had grown tired of countless hackneyed Napoleon routines and Toulouse-Lautrec sketches, and started booing impressionists offstage, yelling “Non amusement! You’re merde! Pissarro off!”

With the dawn of the 20th century, a comedy phenomenon arrived, known simply as the Marx Brothers: Karl, Lenin and Mao, sometimes they were joined by their fourth brother Trotsky, but he wasn’t very funny with his outmoded Menshevik theories, and the ice-pick sticking out the side of his head. The Marx Brothers changed the face of humour forever with their inspired slapstick, wordsmithery and mass-torture, and audiences still flock to see their classic movies A Day at the Odessa Steps, Peking Duck Soup, and Wish Upon A Fallen Tsar.

Looking back over three million years, what a wealth of humour we have to celebrate: ironic humour, ethnic jokes, English wit, French impressions, and Marxist slapstick, so it’s great to see so many modern comedians today, borrowing from this vast comedic treasure trove, by getting up in front of audiences, and doing the same three-million-year-old drug jokes, with a hairy face, bad dress-sense and poorly evolved voicebox.

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