The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.
But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the 4th or 5th century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.
"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."
"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"
"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."
"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"
"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"
"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."
"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."
"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."
"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."
"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"
"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."
"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"
"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"
"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"
"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"
An earlier version of this story ran in 2014.
Since 2011, the popular party game Cards Against Humanity has managed to make being offensive a cottage industry. Using a deck of cards filled with off-color commentary, players are tasked with filling in phrases using answer cards that create scenarios ranging from the merely obscene to the downright scandalous. The rules are loose—players can keep going until they decide they want to stop—but the game has proven to be a hit. Check out some facts about Cards Against Humanity's origins, its Black Friday specials involving poop, and the time the creators pondered whether to cut up a Picasso.
In 2009, Max Temkin, Josh Dillon, Daniel Dranove, Eli Halpern, Ben Hantoot, David Munk, David Pinsof, and Eliot Weinstein—a group of friends, most of whom had attended high school together—got together over their winter break and decided to design a game that could entertain guests during their annual New Year’s Eve parties. While they thought of a variety of games, only one of them—which they called Cardenfreude, after schadenfreude, the German word for delighting in another’s misfortune—stuck.
They continued working on the game after they all headed back to their respective colleges, using pieces of construction paper to print out questions and answers. Later, Temkin and his friends released the game for free under a Creative Commons license. Thanks to early word of mouth, a 2011 Kickstarter campaign was successful and allowed them to produce a commercial edition of the game—which, despite being free to download and print, became an immediate hit. Cards Against Humanity sold nearly 500,000 copies in its first two years and became Amazon’s bestselling game during that period of time.
From the beginning, Temkin and his friends knew that they wanted their venture to be an independent one, not an investor-financed endeavor, so they secured their own manufacturer for the game: Ad Magic, a New Jersey firm specializing in playing cards. They outsourced the work to a factory in China, but as the game racked up sales online, production couldn’t keep up. As a result, copies of Cards Against Humanity sold for up to three times its $25 retail price on the secondary market until production increased.
For a 2014 Black Friday promotional stunt, the Cards Against Humanity company promised to send consumers a box of “bullsh*t.” The company sold and shipped boxes containing a solid piece of real bull dung that was procured from a cattle ranch in Texas. All 30,000 pieces, which were priced at $6 each, sold out within a half-hour the day they went on sale.
According to Temkin, the fecal matter was intended to be a commentary on the sensationalist nature of the hype surrounding Black Friday sales. They’ve made a tradition of attention-grabbing projects each holiday season. In 2015, they held a “promotion” in which people could send them $5 and get nothing in return. (They collected $71,145 and split it among their employees.) In 2016, the company dug a purposely pointless “holiday hole” in an undisclosed area using funds donated by customers. In 2018, the company held a 99-percent-off sale which featured bizarre items at a steep discount like a cheese wheel and an actual car for $97.50. The items were purportedly all real and delivered to purchasers.
Though Cards Against Humanity has drawn comparisons to Apples to Apples, a wordplay game that was released in 1999, the company is not prone to tolerating lookalike products. While people are free to make expansion packs that build on the game’s premise, the company frowns upon them monetizing their creations and will often enlist their lawyers to discourage unauthorized games. Decks like Cards Against Originality and Cards and Punishment, which resemble the now-familiar black and white color scheme and Helvetica font of the original Cards Against Humanity, can invite problems. The company says it has concerns because fans often confuse the third-party projects with official expansion packs.
To keep the material of the expansion packs fresh, Temkin and his partners enlisted Chicago-area comedians to convene for a writer’s room at the company’s offices beginning in 2016. As a result, the game reportedly became raunchier and weirder. The writers also act as a focus group of sorts, making sure the cards are offensive but not excessively so. That system doesn't always work, however. In 2017, Target removed an expansion pack from stores after it was criticized for being antisemitic.
In December 2015, the staff of Cards Against Humanity acquired Tête de Faune, an original work by Pablo Picasso. Though it was never conclusively determined how they had come to acquire it, it was likely from a Chicago-area art dealer. The team ran an online poll to decide whether it should be donated to the Art Institute of Chicago or sliced into 150,000 pieces and distributed to consumers. Of the 50,000 people who voted, 71.3 percent opted to keep it intact.
In 2017, the team behind Cards Against Humanity opened a pop-up store in Chicago in collaboration with the Chicago Design Museum. Located in Block 37’s Chicago Design Market, the storefront sold a variety of games and other Cards Against Humanity-related merchandise, as well as work from local artists. The store was temporary, but the company still sells products via retail outlets like Target and Walmart.