Fun­nily enough, comic tem­plates go far

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Harry Mount

Laugh­ter in An­cient Rome: On Jok­ing, Tick­ling and Cracking up By Mary Beard Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 336pp, $49.95 (HB) IN The Art of Po­etry, Ho­race tells a story that, he prom­ises, will make any­one laugh: ‘‘If a pain­ter wanted to put a horse’s head on a hu­man neck, would you be able to keep your laugh­ter in?’’ Would you? I cer­tainly would.

That’s the thing about Ro­man jokes: they’re not very funny now. In 2008, when comic Jim Bowen did an act based on the 4th century AD Ro­man joke book Philo­ge­los, the jokes hadn’t im­proved with age: ‘‘ A man com­plains that a slave he was sold had died. ‘ When he was with me, he never did any such thing!’ replies the seller.’’ Did that re­ally have them rolling in the aisles in the Colos­seum?

So if you’re ex­pect­ing to laugh at the things that made Ro­mans laugh, pre­pare to be dis­ap­pointed by Mary Beard’s Laugh­ter in An­cient Rome. But, then, Beard isn’t try­ing to be funny, or even say­ing that the Ro­mans were par­tic­u­larly funny, ei­ther. What she tries to do is nail what made the Ro­mans laugh.

June 28-29, 2014

And what she fairly con­clu­sively proves is that even if we don’t find their jokes funny, the Ro­mans built the fur­ni­ture for our com­edy to­day. The lan­guage of mod­ern hu­mour is rooted in Latin. Iocus is Latin for ‘‘joke’’; face­tus, as in face­tious, is Latin for ‘‘witty’’; ridicu­lus, as in ridicu­lous, meant ‘‘laugh­able’’.

Ro­man comic sit­u­a­tions were sim­i­lar to ours, too. Sex fig­ures promi­nently. Cicero’s list of the dif­fer­ent kinds of Ro­man jokes — based on am­bi­gu­ity, the un­ex­pected, word­play, un­der- state­ment, irony, ridicule, silli­ness and prat­falls — is close to any com­pa­ra­ble mod­ern list.

And Beard shows how the ba­sic skele­ton of sev­eral Ro­man jokes still lives on in some mod­ern ones. The old story about Enoch Pow­ell at the bar­ber — ‘‘How should I cut your hair, sir?’’ ‘‘In si­lence’’ — ap­pears in the Philo­ge­los joke book. Both Iris Mur­doch, in The Sea, the Sea, and Sig­mund Freud told ver­sions of the story re­counted by first century AD Ro­man writer Va­lerius Max­imus: ‘‘A Ro­man gover­nor of Si­cily met an or­di­nary res­i­dent in the prov­ince who was his spit­ting im­age. The gover­nor was amazed at the like­ness, since his fa­ther had never been to the prov­ince. ‘But my fa­ther went to Rome,’ the looka­like pointed out.’’

The Ro­mans even came up with the English­man, Ir­ish­man and a Scots­man tem­plate, al­though their equiv­a­lents were the bald man, the bar­ber and the clever man — with the clever man the butt of the gags in the Philo­ge­los joke book.

For all the shared in­fra­struc­ture of our jokes, though, there are some dras­tic dif­fer­ences. To be­gin with, Ter­ence’s 161BC play The Eu­nuch sounds like an episode of Up Pom­peii! A lusty, lovesick youth, Charea, pre­tends to be a eu­nuch to get close to at­trac­tive slave girl Pam­philia. Noth­ing there to shock Frankie How­erd. But then, at the end of the play, Charea uses his eu­nuch dis­guise to rape Pam­philia, be­fore mar­ry­ing her. Not so funny.

In one of the most rad­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween then and now, it ap­pears Ro­mans laughed — and, like us, they tran­scribed laugh­ter as ‘‘ha-ha’’ — but didn’t smile. There are no Ro­man words for smil­ing, which is one of the rea­sons Beard sides with French his­to­rian Jac­ques le Goff’s the­ory that smil­ing was an in­ven­tion of the Mid­dle Ages.

Beard does quote the old adage ‘‘Ab­sence of ev­i­dence is not ev­i­dence of ab­sence’’ — and I find it hard to be­lieve that smil­ing isn’t an in­te­gral hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Still, she is such an af­fa­ble com­pan­ion that it doesn’t mat­ter much if you oc­ca­sion­ally dis­agree with her. She is far too self-aware and un­touchy to be con­vinced of her own right­eous­ness.

This book is based on lec­tures Beard gave at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, in 2008. So it’s not sur­pris­ing that it’s fairly high­brow. Still, she never writes like other dry-as-dust, wil­fully ob­scure dons, and her prose skips along even when she’s dis­cussing Ro­man jokes that are toe-curlingly un­funny. Tit­ter ye not — but ex­pect to be en­gaged by an en­thralling book.

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