Some jokes are always funny. Then again, after 2500 years, some jokes are just really, really gross and weird. The ancient Greeks and Romans may have laid the foundations of the Western world, but — and this is weirdly comforting — they loved fart gags. The comedies they put onstage were about as mature and sophisticated as a Judd Apatow movie, and just as filthy. So if you were sure sex was invented in 1963, hold onto your petticoats: this is a tour through the deepest gutters of the ancient world, ranked from naughty giggles to outright smut. Read on for a sampling of, quite literally, some of the oldest jokes in the book.
The Greek comedian Aristophanes loved big, dumb, gross-out gags, but he also loved political satire with more of a bite. In Wasps, he put them together. In the play, a father and son are arguing for and against Cleon, Athens’ political hotshot. The dad, Philocleon, basically has the hots for Cleon — Philocleon is Greek for “love Cleon.” The son, who thinks Cleon’s a dirtbag, is called Bdelycleon — which means either “disgusting Cleon,” or, more appealingly, “fart Cleon.” Essentially it’s as if Rush Limbaugh changed his name to “Obama-is-a-fart.” Which, come to think of it, would be hilarious.
2. How to Win a Whore in Ten Minutes
Most scripts by the Greek goofball Menander only survived on patchy scraps of papyrus — it’s like listening to a Louis C. K. routine over a terrible Spotify connection. But we have one complete play. Among its highlights are some instructions for seducing women, from a playa to a lovesick kid: “if some friend takes me to see a whore he’s in love with, I hoist her up and carry her right off. I get drunk, burn down the door — I don’t make a whole speech about it!” Note: burning down a woman’s house is no longer a recommended courtship tactic.
(Menander, The Grouch 58-60)
3. Dionysus Dookies his Pants
Onstage, Dionysus was the god of getting inappropriately drunk and acting like an idiot — ancient audiences ate that stuff up. In Frogs, Aristophanes’ send-up of show business, Dionysus runs into Aeacus, a security guard on the night shift in the underworld. Aeacus thinks Dionysus stole his puppy, Cerberus, so Aeacus is ticked. When he tells Dionysus that the hags of hell “are gonna shred your blood-soaked kidneys,” Dionysius, as befits an immortal deity, promptly cowers like a sissy and falls flat on his face. The god’s next line is “I crapped myself.” He was a class act.
(Aristophanes, Frogs 475-9)
4. Making Out: the girl gets around
The Roman humorist Terence comes off as more dainty than the Greek comics — kind of. He still had a dirty little mind. In the farce Hecyra, a tactless bozo called Laches wants to prove his son hasn’t been sleeping around with sex workers. Laches begs Bacchis, a call-girl, to vouch for him. When she obliges, Laches blurts out, “Your tongue has made me kind to you again!” There’s an awkward pause while everyone realizes that a married man just told a prostitute that she sure knows how to use her tongue. Laches presumably sleeps on the couch that night.
(Terence, Hecyra 761)
5. Passing Divine Gas
The Classical Athenians: pioneers of democracy, titans of philosophical thought, passionate fart joke enthusiasts. From what we can tell, Athens couldn’t get enough jokes about cutting the cheese. Aristophanes’ play, Frogs, is named after a chorus of frogs who literally go around making fart noises all the time. When Dionysus, god of embarrassing bodily functions, rows past them in a boat, he says, “you know, my butt’s starting to hurt . . . in a second it’s gonna . . .” and then the frogs let ‘er rip with a perfectly-timed whopper. I count this among the proudest moments of the Western cultural tradition.
(Aristophanes, Frogs 221-4)
6. Keeping it Down
In the ancient tradition of keeping things classy, Roman playwrights routinely put hookers front and center. Even Terence, whose jokes were supposedly a little cleaner, was no exception. Near the opening of his Hecyra, a slave and a prostitute are shooting the breeze. The prostitute remembers working for a soldier who never let her talk, but the slave says, “I bet the soldier didn’t shut you up easy.” This might be a pun about the other things the prostitute did with her mouth, but it’s definitely proof that men have been trying to get women to pipe down for millennia.
(Terence, Hecyra 95-6)
7. Dionysus: things get really freaky really fast
This one is filthy, but it’s also just plain weird. In Frogs, Dionysus’ long-suffering sidekick, Xanthias, gets invited into a love den where call girls are waiting eagerly to give him a lap-dance. Dionysus is outraged at the idea of his slave getting VIP treatment, so he plots revenge. “Wouldn’t it be hilarious,” he giggles, if Xanthias got busy with his escort, “and then I stared him down and grabbed his ‘nads???” It’s unclear what kind of repressed fetish Dionysus is working out here. “Hilarious” is not the word I would use to describe it.
(Aristophanes, Frogs 542-5)
8. You Kiss your Mother with that Mouth?
If the Roman funnyman Plautus knew anything, he knew how to deliver a first-class burn. He stuck one of his raciest into his upstairs/downstairs blockbuster, Casina. Lysidamus, the man of the house, is reading the riot act to two slaves, Chalinus and Olympio. When Lysidamus snaps, “shut up Chalinus,” Chalinus points to Olympio and says, “no, shut his mouth.” Olympio’s comeback: “no, shut his — he’s learned how to take it.” What Olympio means is that Chalinus gets a lot of practice having his mouth stuffed shut, because he’s always “serving” his master when Lysidamus gets lonely. Oh. SNAP.
(Plautus, Casina 362)
9. Don’t Act All Coy: the cook gets split in two
Puns don’t hold up well, but this one’s outrageous. In Plautus’ farce, Pot of Gold, a slave announces his orders to take his master’s possessions and “split them in two.” One of the cooks snorts, “you won’t divide me up, that’s for sure.” The joke lands when another cook throws down some trash talk. “How chaste and dainty,” he says: “you don’t want to get divided.” Scandalously enough, “divided” is down-home Roman slang for “violated” — the cooks are talking about getting used to satisfy their master’s “needs.” Even lost in translation, it makes the tops of your ears burn.
(Plautus, Pot of Gold 280-6)
10. Girls Gone Wild: the seven-second itch
The plot of Lysistrata is famous: the women of Greece refuse to put out until the men end the war between Sparta and Athens. But people forget that the girls in the play get just as sex-starved as the men: halfway through, the ladies start making up outlandish excuses to go slip in a quickie with their husbands. One girl claims she’s got a new bolt of wool at home, and she’ll come right back “once I’ve just spread it out nice and wide on my bed.” The women basically respond, “uh-huh. Spread out the ‘wool.’”
(Airstophanes, Lysistrata 730-5)
Okay, now the call lines are open, and it’s time to hear from the peanut gallery. What do you think? Are these hilarious? Shameful? Both? Do you feel guilty for laughing? Or were they just weird? Throw out your reactions in the comments, or if you think I got it wrong, make the case for your own favorite classical gag. I’m just getting started on ancient jokesters — these guys had material for days. Drop by next week for more good old-fashioned laughs, and a survey of some of the classic girl-meets-boy-meets-prostitute plots from the ancient stage.