A Geezer’s Notebook, By Jim Foster
The opening act of the First Athens Comedy Festival 464 BC
Tailor (holding up pants) – “Euripides?”
Customer – “Eumenides?”
There was no 2nd Athens Comedy Festival.
It may seem strange to us modern aficionados of quality humour that such a hilarious and clever comedy routine as that one could fall flat. But even the best stand-up comedians and writers today have been known to bomb once in a while (George Carlin and me – never, but others?) I’m sure the Athenian theatrical reviewers occasionally got a little out of hand. After all they had been sitting on a stone seat in the hot sun all day. You older geezers will remember that vaudeville audiences used to throw rotten tomatoes at comics to show their displeasure, the Greeks threw rocks.
Even my sparkling and incisive humour wouldn’t necessarily have garnered rave revues had it been orated in the Parthenon. On the other hand as we can readily see from sculptures from the Golden Age of Greece the audience would have been too busy trying to keep their togas up to give their full attention to my witticisms. Let’s face it, togas were quite a problem. Instead of their top guns working on isosceles triangles, squared hypotenuses and the weight of bodies immersed in water, someone should have been thinking long and hard about zippers. And yet, we know the ancient Greeks were the sharpest people in the world at the time, they must have appreciated brilliant repartee just as we do today – unless of course they were American Republicans.
I think humour has always been with us. I can picture the cream of Greek philosophers and intellectuals sitting around the agora and after a few wines Sophocles would say “So these two Thracians and a Spartan met in a bar…” or Pericles, the playwright would grin and say “Did you hear about the two Thessalonians and a Vestal Virgin who went into a motel? “
There they would sit there chuckling all day one-upping each other until their wives came down at dinnertime and wheeled them home in a wheelbarrow.
I’m sure that you, like me, often lie awake nights wondering what made simple folk laugh so many centuries ago. For instance what did Adam and Eve titter at after a hard day gardening? The business with the serpent and the apple must have brought on a snicker or two until God found out and sent them packing through that patch of poison ivy. But as they wandered around the Middle East slaying folks along the way and of course, doing lots and lots of begetting (according to the scriptures the ancient Hebrews got a real charge out of both) their sense of humour must have been developing at the same time. After all, there is nothing like begetting and wiping out a rival civilization to get your giggler going.
A century or two later, there were lots of Biblical things to laugh at.
“Why am I suddenly craving salt and vinegar? Oh, Jonah, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Moses is in trouble with his missus again. Every time she climbs in the tub, he sneaks in and parts her bathwater. She thought it was funny the first 30 times”
King Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines. Can you imagine anyone being that horny? One of the dozens of Sarahs would say, “Hey, Naomi, I got a peek at the schedule, you’re not up until next February. That will give you lots of time to develop a migraine.” Solomon was supposed to be the wisest man who ever lived. He might have been but he certainly wasn’t the fattest. I figure by the time he finished servicing his harem he would weigh about twelve pounds.
Eventually civilization got to England and once the people no longer had to pronounce their H’s court jesters became the norm in the entertainment industry. Jestering was a good job – but dangerous. A humorous remark about the size of the queen’s bottom often put a stand-up comedian with bells on his hat on the endangered species list. Imagine being the court jester for Henry VIII.. One smart-ass aside and the comic would be bending over a block with Anne Boleyn.
Surely you remember Woody Allen’s classic movie, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) where Woody, as a court jester, got his hand stuck in the queen’s chastity belt. Not only did he not win an academy award for his performance, he got his head chopped off.