The jokes that have made people laugh for thousands of years


Bohart says audience laughter is complicated. “The moment of shock can stifle laughter. The things we’re not supposed to laugh about: death, sanity, brutal self-mockery. People can be hesitant to laugh out loud.”

Stand-up comedy in recent years has evolved at breakneck speed. Kylie Brakeman was an early adopter of a new type of observational comedy that emerged at the start of the pandemic. His on-camera Twitter videos have garnered millions of views and launched an era in which the events of the day can be parodied in minutes.

“It’s insane that we live in a world where everyday television is too slow to keep up,” Brakeman says. Online comedians are increasingly on the cutting edge of satire. “If something happened in the news, you could jump on it right away. It’s an advantage that online comedians have. Even if you’re writing for a late-night show, the joke has already been made 17 times on Twitter before the show airs at night.”

This type of modern comedy, which dates in a few minutes, is a far cry from a joke scribbled in the margins of a Latin text, which had to remain funny for the next scholar each time he came across it.

This accelerated production process comes with a different set of risks. But with an audience of millions kept behind a screen, the online “bombardment” seems less catastrophic. Brakeman says, “If people like it, then they like it. And if they don’t like it, they really don’t think about it that much. I think that’s a lot less serious than bombing on stage, because it’s just a case of not getting likes on something.”

Who knows what audiences thousands of years in the future would think if they saw videos of contemporary comedians. Perhaps they will look at today’s avant-garde comedy and see it a bit like the Mesopotamian fart joke: lacking some of the finer cultural details, but with fundamentals that resist the test of time.

*Matt Kenyon is a journalist and scriptwriter for ‘The Skewer’ on BBC Radio 4.

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