What’s The Actual ‘Oldest Joke in The Book?’ We Just May Have Found It.

We read through the Philogelos—a 1,500-year-old joke book from ancient Rome—to find the answer. You'd be surprised what it is.

old jokes statueTonyBaggett/iStockHere’s the joke I told my friend: “A duck walks into a pharmacy and says, ‘Gimme some Chapstick and put it on my bill.’” Luckily, I laughed enough for the both of us because my friend didn’t. “That’s soooo old!!” he moaned.

I corrected him: “No, this is soooo old: 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, tell him that I stopped by.’

Believe it or not, that gag has been slaying ‘em for thousands of years. It’s part of an ancient Roman joke book called Philogelos, or Laughter Lover. The book is rife with flatulence gags, sex-crazed wives, and digs at intellectuals, or “scholastikos.” In short, not much has changed in the humor world in 2,000 years.

Here’s what we imagine a stand-up routine in 79 AD sounding like. The gags from the book are in bold, and have only been slightly edited.

MC: Live, from the Etruscan Room in beautiful downtown Pompeii, give a warm Roman welcome for the comedy stylings of Pliny Youngman!

PLINEY YOUNGMAN: Hello-o-o-o, Pompeii! How are ya? Boy, is this joint rockin’ or is Vesuvious about to blow! Geez, the last eruption I saw this bad was on my kid’s face! Don’t worry about all the smoke and molten rock, I know all about volcanoes, my father-in-law is a scholastikos. Those scholastikos, they read a few scrolls, and they think they know everything. Not true. Did you hear about the scholastikos who was told, “Your beard is now coming in?” He went to the city’s rear-gates and waited for it. Another intellectual asked what he was doing. Once he heard the whole story, he said, “I’m not surprised that people say we lack common sense. How do you know that it’s not coming in by the other gate?”

And what a cheap guy. How cheap is he? He got sick and promised to pay the doctor if he recovered. When his wife nagged at him for drinking wine while he had a fever, he said: “Do you want me to get healthy and be forced to pay the doctor?”

Look, I kid you scholastikos’ because I love ya. You’re a brainy bunch, unlike those Abderites from Thrace. Not the sharpest sword in the phalanx, am I right? An Abderite saw a eunuch talking with a woman and asked him if she was his wife. When he was told that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked: “So, is she your daughter?”

Speaking of daughters, a glutton betrothed his daughter to another glutton. Asked what he was giving her as a dowry, he replied. “A house whose windows face the bakery.” Get it? She’s a glutton … bakery … OMJ—Oh My Jupiter—what is this, a comedy club or a funeral pyre? I had better audiences at the Battle of Pydna.

Who here is married? My wife, Agrippina, I tell ya. The other day, I said, “What should we do, darling? Eat or make love?” She said, “You can choose, but there’s not a crumb in the house.” Sounds good, right? But the prettiest gal this side of Mesopotamia she ain’t. Some people eat dinner and go to a vomitorium, I make love to Agrippina and go to a vomitorium.

HECKLER: Hey, Pliny Youngman, I had your wife, without paying a dime!

PLINEY YOUNGMAN: Sir, it’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it? I tell ya, my wife. A census taker knocked on my door and asked me, “If it please you, do you have a wife?” I said, “Indeed I have a wife, but by Hercules she doesn’t please me!”

Look at all this ash and lava coming in through the door. Did anyone tell Vesuvius this is a non-smoking club? I haven’t seen anything lose it’s top like that since I told Agrippina she should cut back on the figs and honeyed wine. I came home one day to find she’d outgrown her toga and was wearing a fitted sheet!

Hey, I can’t blame my wife. I haven’t been feeling myself lately. I told my doctor, “Doctor, whenever I get up from my sleep, for half an hour I feel dizzy, and then I’m all right.” So the doctor told me, “Get up half an hour later, then.”

Holy Neptune, I’ve seen some stone-faced crowds, but you guys have actually turned to stone. Well, the deities are telling me to end my set and grab the next chariot to Gaul. I’ll be appearing at Club Chuckles, then I’m off to pillage Carthage. You’ve been a great audience, and I’ll leave you with these immortal words from Caesar, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” We came, we saw, we dated Vickie. Good night!

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.