Shirley, vous zest?
By R. D. Flavin

      Brookline, Massachusetts’s Coolidge Corner, the intersection of Harvard and Beacon Streets, has been a wonderful residential and commercial contribution to the diversified cultural resources of the Commonwealth for a great many years.  Its confluence of being an important public transportation convergence of subway and bus routes, the nearby deservingly hip Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Brookline Booksmith bookstore (as being independently owned and managed have each garnered many awards and much critical acclaim), the local restaurants ranging from the simple to the finest of international cuisines, the banks, the cool and odd specialty stores and more has rightly earned Coolidge Corner a reputation of a societal necessity rather than tourist whimsy.  Coolidge Corner has always had much to offer and if one chooses not to take advantage, wait, and it’ll still be there when you change your mind.

     Last week, while passing through Coolidge Corner on an errand, I was approached by a young French couple asking directions to Harvard Square.  “Take the #66 bus; it stops at that corner over there,” I answered and pointed to the southeastern corner of Harvard St.  “It’s real easy,” I qualified,”the bus jogs around a bit, but after it crosses the Charles River and you’re in Cambridge, you’ll recognize Harvard Square within a couple of stops...”  I paused, smiled wickedly as I turned to the Dark Side, adding, ”However, after 9/11 and our establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency, and as you’re both obviously foreign tourists, you’ll have to ride separate buses.”  “It’s a security issue, you understand?” I deadpanned.

     “Surely, vous zest?” the young French guy asked, with a slight, yet nervous, grin.

     “Yes, I do jest,” I confessed, “and don’t call me Shirley!”*

Example of early humor as reconstructed in The Flintstones.

     Humor has always been with us and some would argue that it predates humanity itself.  Many schoolchildren would readily support such theories after a common field-trip to a local zoo and having monkeys in cages throw feces through the bars at them. [1]  My personal experience, while in the third grade at the zoo in Munich, Germany, when an elephant reached its trunk across the animal/human divide and sucked away my brown-bag lunch was certainly amusing for my classmates, though ‘til this day I find nothing funny about the incident.

     Among humans, pre-literate humor is an almost certainty, though except with the animated reconstructions dating from 1960 (see The Flintstones hyperlink above), we can only speculate as to the interpretations of various ancient pictographs and rock art.  Some are likely silly and meant to be whimsical, though arguing what specific examples were considered humorous would be extremely difficult to convince beyond mere suggestion.  That early homo sapiens sapiens possessed the ability to chuckle or let loose a guffaw is a given, but what caused the laughter could have been anything from breaking wind in a cave to watching another getting injured or eaten by a wild animal or any number of things in between.  I would guess an accidental fall was as humorous in prehistoric times as it was when the comedian, Chevy Chase, performed pratfalls on Saturday Night Live in the ‘70s.

     Physical comedy is present in our earliest western literature, as when Zeus decided to give Hephaestus a toss, which broke his leg (Iliad i.590), an act believed to have elicited much laughter from the Olympians, though unlikely from Hephaestus, who was crippled for eternity. [2]  Laughing at someone else’s pain is thus attested among supraterrestrials and probably found in most terrestrial cultures around the world and throughout history as well.

     Classical authors and philosophers, both Greek and Roman, debated the complexities of humor, its relationship with tragedy and satire, yet while acknowledging wit as entertainment, they wrote treatises and position papers on humor so drab and boring (not unlike this column), that the texts perhaps inspired many a reader to emulate Socrates and ask for some hemlock.

     The region generally regarded as the Near East, though technically Asiatic and Oriental, is part of the Eastern Mediterranean complex which included Greece and Rome, and the Hebrew scriptures have long been held to contain some passages of humor.  The exact sections, verses and terms are debated as much today as in Greco-Roman times. [3]  Discussion about The Book of Job as allegory has a lengthy history of debate and the nasty slander that the Jews secretly worshiped an ass or ass-headed god is sufficiently described in The Jewish Encyclopedia under “Ass-worship.”

     Though originally a combination of Canaanite gods, and with all of the usual super-manly attributes [4], the Hebrew YHVH of the Old Testament (Yahveh or Jehovah), was widely respected as a strict and demanding creator-god who influenced the Platonic tool-god, the so-called Demiurge.  Granted, the God of the Old Testament had a vicious temper, at times, but was ultimately benevolent.  Either from not being used or being somehow abused, God then become a distant and emotionless extraterrestrial who eventually devolved into a mere philosophical abstract and formless construction.  Many second and third century CE Greek Gnostics explicitly combined the Demiurge with the God of the Old Testament and in their writings called him Yaldabaoth, a blind, idiot minor god who had asked for Adam’s whereabouts in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3.8).  However, as far as calling a foreign god a bad name or accusing certain believers of some hideous and foul acts, the Jews themselves were intimately familiar with trash-talk, as with their their scriptural accounts concerning the ancient Philistines, which contain horrific and fantastic slurs, terrible antics and alleged misdeeds.  The Gnostics continued Plato’s Demiurge, while humorously relegating the Hebrew god to a delusional, dysfunctional bumpkin status.  Jesus, the Galilean Cynic philosopher, itinerant teacher and stand-up prophet known as YHShVH (Yeshua < Yehoshua or Joshua), faired a little better, at least at first,  ...
before becoming the deity called the Christ of the New Testament.

Jesus Juice,” a recent connection between Jesus and wine.

And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.  Mark 2:22 (Various translators.  1611.  THE HOLY BIBLE, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties Special Commandment. Appointed to be read in Churches. London: Robert Barker.)  Commonly known as the King James Version or KJV.

And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins.  Mark 2:22. (Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.  1993.  The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the AUTHENTIC Words of Jesus.  NY: Harper Collins.)  Sometimes referred to as the Scholars’ Version or SV.

Jesus said, "A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows.  And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other.  Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil.  An old patch is not sewn onto a new garment, since it would create a tear."  Thomas Saying 47.  (Patterson, Stephen and Marvin Meyer.  1992, 1994.  “The ‘Scholars' Translation’ of the Gospel of Thomas.”  The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version.  Edited by Robert J. Miller.  Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press.)  There is considerable controversy about the dating of Thomas with guesses ranging from the early 50s to ca. 100 CE.

      When Jesus (Latin Iesus < Greek Iesous < Aramaic Yeshua) was performing his stand-up prophet routine, it’s believed his line about mixing old and new wines and skins was considered peasant humor and a success with the crowds.  His unique humor emerges in several sayings and parables and is clearly identifiable.  With the letters of Paul (composed ca. 45-67 CE), Jesus was no longer a simple and earthy Galilean Cynic philosopher, but was transformed into a mythical "Cosmic Christ."  The author known today as Mark, who wrote in the very early 70s (probably immediately after Titus captured Jerusalem and the destruction of the Hebrew temple), combined the peasant humor and sayings of Jesus, Paul’s "Cosmic Christ," and using Greek tragedy as a stylistic framework, gave us the earliest gospel narrative about Jesus, the Christ.  Mark’s Christ incorporated most of the popular material of Jesus, yet got rather heady at times and would have undoubtedly lost his audience.  Jesus, as the Christ, did even worse under the pens of the gospel authors known as Matthew, Luke and John.  The small venues and pleasant countryside settings worked for Jesus, but didn’t play well in Jerusalem.  He died, literally and metaphorically.  Christ got a call-back, for a time and is scheduled for another tour at some point in the future.  However, Jesus is no more, except in our hearts and in his extant peasant humor and sayings.  He likely borrowed the one about the eye of the needle...  And maybe more, but give the guy a break–being a stand-up prophet is a tough gig,

     The Gnostics, for the most part, had a great deal of fun with Jesus, the Christ.  From approximately the early second to the late fourth centuries CE, and written mainly in Greek, the Gnostic authors used a variety of styles.  Some of the works were represented as apocrypha, some are now classified as blatant pseudopigraphy, while others almost defy being catalogued into a particular stylistic genre.  Still, we must keep in mind that there were many, many Gnostic sects and philosophies, and the associated mythologies and narratives differ greatly.  While some Gnostic works survived intact throughout the centuries, much of our knowledge about Gnostics and their beliefs were teased from brief quotes contained in early Christian attacks against the Gnostic heresies (e.g.  Irenaeus and Epiphanius).  Much later, actual Gnostic papyri fragments began to be unearthed from ancient trash-heaps and discovered in the backrooms of monasteries.  Slowly, a clearer picture of the Gnostics began to develop and with the 1945 discovery of thirteen Gnostic codices (i.e. books) at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, a cultural fascination which bordered on fanatical obsession about Gnosticism began. 

     The details of the emerging fad are well known.  Jung’s associates spent some tall change to allow the famous theoretical psychologist a first look at one of the codices, a scholarly translation of The Gospel According to Thomas was published in 1959 [5], followed a year later by Doresse’s popular description of the discovery [6], however (at least for me), it wasn't until John Dart, a feature writer specializing in religion working for the L. A. Times, released his The Laughing Savior in 1976 [7], that we began to collectively giggle and squirm for what was to come.  Sure, according to John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” but the Gnostics apparently downed several skins of old wine and imagined that he spent a lot of his time laughing!

     In 1977, as the general editor, Prof. James M. Robinson (Claremont Graduate University, Professor Emeritus of Religion) released the first edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English [8], which was then followed by Prof. Elaine Pagels’ hugely successful The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, while she was on the faculty of Barnard College [9].  The fun then escaped the grip of Sirius scholarship, remembering its literary beginnings, as Harold Bloom wrote and published  his only novel, The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy [10], and with a Gnostic theme, but essentially describing a slight stroke and nervous breakdown, the late Philip K. Dick released the sci-fi masterpiece, VALIS, in 1981 [11].  Although academia has continued to examine Gnosticism and construct a surer model of what inspired those heretical pranksters, the continued cultural fascination has produced New Age religious movements supposedly based on Gnosticism, a few magazines, several television specials, and may even be credited with the recent obscene success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code [12].  Catholicism and the rest of mainstream Christianity has, of course, found no humor in any of this, which is shameful, as life should include the occasional chuckle in between insincere repenting and the damning of others.

     Not to gainsay the accomplishments and contributions of the Greeks in matters humourous, but at the same time as the Gnostics were beginning to have their fun, Apuleius (ca. 123-180 CE) wrote a long story in Latin, which many regard as our oldest novel, Aureus Asinus (“The Golden Ass”), commonly referred to as the Metamorphoses (not to be confused with Ovid’s poem of the same name).  As our oldest, extant novel, The Golden Ass is a delight to read, its description of the usage of a Solanaceae witch-salve is remarkably accurate, and its thematic irreverence is thought to have been a direct influence on Rabelais, Hobbes, and Voltaire, to name a few.  As Apuleius was a pagan from North Africa (modern Algeria) and we know that pagans love to party and have fun, some critics have advanced the opinion that portions of The Golden Ass are autobiographical.  The bawdy, erotic, vulgar, self-deprecating, a tad misogynistic, playful and mean at the same time, yet based solidly in the day-to-day lives and affairs of the common people, are all traits which have survived these many years as a type of humor most enjoy (though often deny).  Experiment: say the word “ass” to any English speaking person from eight to eighty years of age and take note of their reaction.  The majority will smile and the rest can kiss my mildly blemished, middle-aged (yet well preserved) Irish-American...

Cover of 2006's The Victorian Clown by Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone (NY: Cambridge University Press).

Have you seen my girlfriend's bonnet?  I gave her that.  Have you seen her jacket?  I gave her that.
  Have you seen her eyes?  Yes, they were both black.  Yes, I gave her those.
An example of Victorian Era clown humor.

      A few weeks ago a smattering of news articles appeared (in both print and online formats) about the recent discovery of a Victorian Era clown’s gag and joke book.  With a close re-read, it seems the actual discovery was a couple of years ago, a book was published last August (see above) which featured the manuscript, and the actual reason the stories were written was because a group of drama students were going to re-enact the gags at Blackpool, England’s historic Grand Theatre.  Apparently, the show was well received (i.e. no fruits or veggies were thrown at the stage).  More details may be had at the web-sites of the BBC, The Citizen (a Blackpool newspaper), and The Independent (a London newspaper).

     If I were asked to name my favorite comedian, I’d unhesitatingly choose Johnny Carson and his soft-spoken delivery and rhythmic style.  While in elementary school, I often found Bill Cosby amusing and, if given the opportunity, probably still would.  As a teen I was addicted to the drug-themes in the humor of Cheech & Chong and George Carlin.  Around that same time (1972-1973), I was allowed to go retro for a brief period, after a drunk uncle gave me several Redd Fox albums from the early ‘60s.  Then, there was a Lenny Bruce revival, with many books and the Dustin Hoffman movie.  When I heard Richard Pryor’s routines, I guess I knew somehow that humor was basic, often base, and vulgar according to the times.  After that, life took over for me (i.e. I grew up), priorities shifted and listening to stand-up became less and less important.  I suppose that was a mistake, as we all need to laugh every now and then.

     Today, as in recent years, I turn to the Comedy Channel on occasion, when HBO is available I’ll watch an episode of Def Comedy Jam, and despite feeling somewhat shocked by the new hyper-vulgarity (by stand-ups of both sexes), I still laugh out loud every now and then.  And, as it’s supposed to, laughing makes me feel good.  To understand humor one needn’t consult a scientific paper (as, ...ahem, I did) [13], just enjoy a good (or especially bad) joke.

     Seeking shelter from a sudden storm, a Muslim, a Christian and a Buddhist took refuge in a bar.  The bartender was Black (African-American, as you will) and was serving a drink to an elderly Jewish gentleman.  The Jew, upon noticing the new arrivals, turned to the bartender and said, “I’d like to buy these men a drink.”  The Muslim said, “The Holy Qur’an advises against the consumption of alcohol, but as you Jews are the bitter enemies of Islam and everyone knows you worship money as a god, I will sin to spite you and make you spend your money.  I will have a rum and Coke.  The Christian then said, “You Jews killed Jesus, the Christ, but that wonderful Savior from Galilee taught us to forgive our enemies.  I’ll have vodka on the rocks.”  The Buddhist clasped his hands in front of him, lowered his head, and softly said, “Following the fifth precept of my faith, I abstain from all intoxicants.  Maybe, if the Wheel of Karma turns a certain way, perhaps in another lifetime I will accept your offer.”  Pointing to a sign on the wall behind the bar which read ‘Drink or Leave’, the bartender said, “In this lifetime, don’t let the Door of Karma hit you in the ass!  Get out of my bar!”  As the Buddhist quietly departed, the Jew smiled to himself and said, “Oh well, a shekel saved is a shekel earned.  I wonder if Ben Franklin was Jewish?”

[1]  Butovskaya, Marina L. and Alexander G. Kozintsev.  1996.  “A Neglected Form of Quasi-Aggression in Apes: Possible Relevance for the Origins of Humor.”  Current Anthropology.  37, 4: 716-717.
[2]  Rapp, Albert.  1948.  "The Dawn of Humor."  The Classical Journal.  43, 5: 275-280.
[3]  Whedbee, J. William.  1998.  The Bible and the Comic Vision.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
[4]  Cross, Frank Moore.  1973.  Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: essays in the history of the religion of Israel.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  Page 23 is especially funny.
[5]  Guillaumont, Antoine et al.  1959.  The Gospel According to Thomas.  New York: Harper.
[6]  Dorsesse, Jean.  1960.  The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics: an Introduction to the Gnostic Coptic Manuscripts Discovered at Chenoboskion.  New York: Viking.
[7]  Dart, John.  1976. The Laughing Savior: The Discovery and Significance of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library.  New York: Harper & Row.
[8]  Robinson, James M.  1977.  The Nag Hammadi Library in English.  Translated by members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate School.  General editior: J. M. Robinson.  New York: Harper & Row.  The third edition (1988) contains an interesting Afterword, “The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism,” by Richard Smith, the managing editor.  Smith openly requests that readers inform him as to how and when sci-fi author, P. K. Dick, got advance photocopies of some of the translations while researching the work which eventually became VALIS; see above and [11] below.
[9]  Pagels, Elaine.  1979.  The Gnostic Gospels.  New York: Random House.
[10]  Bloom, Harold Bloom.  1979.  The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  Bloom allowed only a single printing and currently refuses to allow republication.
[11]  Dick, Philip K.  1981.  VALIS. Paperback.  New York: Bantam Books.  The first hardcover edition was published in 1987 by Kerosina Books, Worcester Park, Surrey, UK.
[12]  Brown, Dan.  2003.  The Da Vinci Code.  New York: Doubleday.  A movie version directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks was released in 2006.

[13]  Kline, L. W.  1907.  “The Psychology of Humor.”  The American Journal of Psyychology.  18, 4: 421-441.

*Yeah, it’s a variation of the famous line spoken by Leslie Nielsen (as Dr. Rumack) from 1980's Airplane!, written by Jim Abrahams and David Zucker.  The above narrative describes an incident which never took place.  It was just a desperate set-up to use someone’s else’s humor.  But, that’s how it goes.

Sincerely (yeah, sure),

Return to