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Infinite Jest

Stop me if you've heard this one...

"Guy goes to a psychiatrist," said a friend at dinner, interrupting an earnest discussion of HMOs. "Psychiatrist says, 'You're crazy.' Guy says, 'I want a second opinion.' Psychiatrist says, 'You're ugly, too.'" We chuckled politely. "The oldest joke in the world, and it still kills," the wag pronounced with authority. Wrong on both counts, I thought. No threat of fatal hilarity here; and the oldest joke in the world? Hardly. Henny Youngman, the gag's putative progenitor, roamed the savanna only recently—between 1906 and 1998, the Late Hellaceous period. I began to wonder whether any single joke could be definitively declared as old as the hills and demonstrably twice as dusty—and resolved to find out.

A bit of research quickly eliminated several possibilities. The classic riddle involving strolling poultry was first cited in the March 1847 issue of Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine. In 1739, Joe Miller's Jests made olde England merry. (A sample Miller-Time rib tickler: "A famous teacher of Arithmetick, who had long been married without being able to get his wife with child: One said to her, 'Madam, your husband is an excellent Arithmetician.' 'Yes,' replies she, 'only he can't multiply.'" Ba-da-bum! )

A century and a half before that, Shakespeare alluded in his plays to much earlier joke books. All of them seem to have disappeared, except for a 1484 translation of excerpts from an Italian volume, the Liber Facetiarum (Book of Humor), a collection of 273 "jocose tales" in Latin compiled by scholar and papal secretary Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. (A mild taste of the less-than-divine comedy: A monk comforts an ill man saying that God inflicts misfortune on those he loves. The patient responds, "I am not surprised that God has so few friends; if He treats them in this manner, He will have even less.")

More ancient still is a collection that scholars declare to be the world's oldest surviving joke book. The Philolegos, or Laughter Lover, is a Greek anthology from the fourth or fifth century a.d. Its more than 200 jokes are divided into categories—the largest of which is devoted to scholastikos (scholars), or eggheads. ("A young egghead sold his books when short of money. He then wrote to his father, 'Congratulate me, father. I am already making money from my studies!'") The Greek historian Athenaeus mentions a still-earlier anthology of witticisms commissioned by Philip of Macedon in the third century b.c., but no trace remains. Thus ended the trail.

But then a solid candidate for the title of first recorded jest, the ur-gag, emerged. "Found: the oldest joke in the world," read the headline in the Sunday Times of London on June 29, 1997. Inscribed on a roll of papyrus, the hoary jape could be translated as a riddle: "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."

I guess you had to be there (in 2600 b.c., when King Snefru received this wink-wink nudge-nudge advice from the court magician Djadjamankh.) Or perhaps it was funnier in the original hieroglyphic. (Asp jackal ibis? Wiggly line, ankh, feather!)

Carol Andrews, formerly of the Egyptian antiquities department of the British Museum, and now a lecturer at the University of London, notes that the ancient Egyptians were amused by nudity, drunkenness, slapstick and political satire. The magician's sly suggestion appears within a political treatise; the fishing trip precipitates a convoluted narrative meant to underscore the cosmic inevitability of the new dynasty's rule. Andrews says Djadjamankh's advice was probably meant as droll social commentary. Still, she concedes that the quip could reasonably be considered the world's first recorded joke. It's 4,608 years old—but still sounds so fresh you'd swear it is only 4,607.

Judith Stone's most recent book, When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race will be published in paperback this year by Hyperion

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