November 14, 2008

Ancient Greek Joke Book Pre-Empted Famous Monty Python Sketch

Historians have discovered that a Greek 4th century AD joke book features an ancestor of Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch where a man returns a parrot to a shop, complaining it is dead.

The work entitled "Philogelos: The Laugh Addict," one of the world's oldest joke books contains a joke in which a man complains that a slave he has just bought has died, its publisher said on Friday.

"By the gods," answers the slave's seller, "when he was with me, he never did any such thing!"

First aired in 1969, the British comedy act Monty Python's Flying Circus had a sketch where a pet-shop owner says a parrot, a "Norwegian Blue," is not dead, just "resting" or "pining for the fjords."

Many of the English-language book's 265 gags will seem strikingly familiar, suggesting that sex, dimwits, nagging wives and flatulence have raised laughs for centuries.

A slow-witted figure known as the "student dunce" is the butt of many of the jokes found in the book. In one, the student dunce goes to the city and a friend asks him to buy two 15-year-old slaves: "No problem,' responds the dunce. "If I don't find two 15-year-olds, I'll get one 30-year-old.'

Another joke has someone asking to borrow the student's cloak to go down to the country. "I have a cloak to go down to your ankle, but I don't have one that reaches to the country," he replies.

Two ancient comedians called Hierocles and Philagrius are the likely authors of the original manuscript. But very little is known about them except that they were most likely the compilers of the jokes, not the original writers.

Veteran British comedian Jim Bowen, 71, reads the lines before a 21-century audience in the multi-media e-book, which can be purchased online (www.yudu.com/oldestjokebook).

Richard Stephenson, CEO of digital publisher YUDU, said Jim Bowen brings them back from the dead. "It's like Jurassic Park for jokes."

"One or two of them are jokes I've seen in peoples' acts nowadays, slightly updated: they put in a motorcar instead of a chariot," said Bowen.

But some of the jokes in Philogelos may baffle modern audiences, such as a series of jokes about a lettuce, which only make sense in light of the ancient belief that lettuce was an aphrodisiac.

The world's oldest joke book has made comedy history by becoming the world's first online multi-media joke book.


Image Caption: John Cleese (right) attempts to return his dead Norwegian Blue parrot to Michael Palin.