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The oldest recorded joke in history is a Sumerian quip dating back to 1900 BCE. And naturally, it's a fart joke.

In this episode of The List Show, host and Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy shares 9 jokes and brainteasers from history, including puzzling riddles and puns that transcend time.


0:00 An ancient fart joke
0:43 Intro
1:10 A 4000-year-old dog walks into a 4000-year-old bar
2:55 The sphinx's riveting riddle
3:29 Samson's scam
4:21 Philogelos funnies
5:11 Three men and some cattle
6:32 Joe Miller’s Jests
7:06 Puns from the past
8:10 A classic cat joke
1. In 2008, historians announced that they had identified the oldest recorded joke in history: A Sumerian quip dating back to 1900 BCE. What layered comedic marvel did the ancient Sumerians who invented cuneiform and arithmetic pass down as part of their legacy? A fart joke, of course.

The joke reads, in an approximate translation: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Hilarious, right? Well, it probably wasn’t ever intended to be a laugh-out-loud Sumerian Comedy Club zinger. It’s actually more a humorous proverb than a straight joke—as for what it’s proverbing, that’s maybe a bit less clear, but it does show a simple fact that we’ve known for ages: ladies love farting.

Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, editor in chief of Mental Floss, and welcome to The List Show. Since the humble beginnings of language itself, people have been trying to make others laugh. Today, we’ll cover some of those attempts, including puzzling puns and fart jokes that transcend time. Now that’s what I call … a blast from the past. Just roll the intro.


2. “A dog walks into a bar and says, ‘I cannot see a thing. I’ll open this one.’” I’ll give you a second to catch your breath; I’m sure you’re in absolute stitches right now. This lackluster quip was the world’s first recorded bar joke, discovered by archaeologists in the 1800s on a roughly 4000 year old ancient Sumerian clay tablet. Sumerian language expert Edmund Gordon provided an alternate translation, which reads: “The dog, having entered an inn, did not see anything, (and so he said): ‘Shall I open this (door)?’” Still not getting it? You’re not alone.

Historians believe that the humor could be lost on us because we haven’t experienced ancient Sumerian culture. But that still doesn’t answer the question of what a dog walking into a bar and opening … something … actually means. Gordon suggested that the “bar” in question could have been a brothel of sorts, and the dog was opening the door to another room where he would then—to put it in PG terms—feel very grateful that dog neutering wouldn’t become commonplace for another few thousand years. And some believe the juxtaposition of "I cannot see a thing" and the use of the word "open" points to the dog opening its eyes. Thus, a new, half-funny meaning is extrapolated: the dog can’t see anything in the bar, so he opens his eyes.

All that considered, there’s always the possibility that the joke wasn’t meant to be funny, and an ancient Sumerian adding this to their tight five would’ve been booed off the stage of the comedy hut.

Perhaps it should read more like a proverb: be mindful of your surroundings lest you mistake a brothel for a bar. Or it could just be the equivalent of “why did the chicken cross the road,” in which the punchline is more of an anti-joke. Unless you take the punchline to mean “to get to the other side” as in the afterlife, in which case the joke takes on an entirely different, funnier meaning. I digress. Like the dog’s vision, the meaning of this joke is shrouded in mystery.

3. Riddles may be closer to puzzles than jokes, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention these age-old zingers. They show up in a good deal of old and ancient texts. The most famous probably being the one asked by the Sphinx to Oedipus.

There are a few different versions, but here’s the general gist: What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon and three at night? The answer, Oedipus correctly replied, was: “Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a walking stick.” The Sphinx, astonished at Oedipus’s answer, kills herself afterwards. Should’ve come up with a harder riddle.

4. Another old riddle shows up in a biblical tale. Samson, a judge who ruled over Israel in the Hebrew Bible, held a wedding party with 30 guests and posed a high-stakes riddle to his guests. If they were to answer correctly, he would give them all expensive articles of clothing. If they guessed wrong, he would get the fancy garb.

The riddle was as follows, according to the Bible’s New Living Translation: “Out of the one who eats came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.” Stumped? So were Samson’s guests. The answer to the riddle was not common knowledge. Prior to the dinner, Samson had ripped apart a lion with his bare hands, and later found out that bees had started swarming and making honey in its carcass. The lion, in this case, is “the one who eats” and “the strong,” and the bees’ honey is “something to eat” and “something sweet.” Long-winded way of getting people to buy you gifts, but hey, whatever works. Unless your guests get the answer some other way, but that’s another story.

5. Where else could we find the world’s oldest jokes if not the world’s oldest surviving joke book? Philogelos, which roughly translates to “lover of laughter,” is a 4th century book, originally written in Greek, that contains over 200 ancient jokes. Here are some bangers: “At a dignitary’s funeral in Kyme, someone goes up to the officials and asks, ‘Who’s the dead guy?’ One of the Kymaeans turns around and points. ‘The one lying in the coffin.’”

“Asked by the court barber how he wanted his hair cut, the king replied: ‘In silence.’”

"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?'"

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

6. Here’s another old brainteaser for you. This Sumerian joke, riddle, legal problem, what-have-you chronicles three travelers, and ends in more questions than answers: Essentially, three ox drivers from Adab got into an argument and went before the king to settle the matter. They said that of the three, one owned an ox, one owned a cow, and one owned the wagon.

One day they were thirsty. The ox’s owner was asked to get water and he refused, fearing that his ox would be eaten by a lion. The cow’s owner refused because his cow might wander off into the desert. Then the third man refused, because—well, there’s a bit of disagreement here, but probably because he feared the load in his wagon would be stolen. So for some reason they all left and in their absence the ox made love to the cow which gave birth to a calf that ate the wagon’s load. So the question was, who owned the calf?

Well, the King didn’t have an answer, so he visited a court lady for advice and ... the next 30 plus lines are missing, and what’s after that is difficult to decipher, though it seems that everyone was dissatisfied with the arrangement. Experts are pretty sure this is supposed to be humorous and maybe was supposed to tell a lesson about cooperation, since this whole thing could have been avoided if one person got water and the other two helped out, but it’s hard to tell; we’re neither experts on ancient languages and culture, nor are we experts on being funny, as several of you love to point out in the comments every week.

7. A joke book from 1739 titled Joe Miller’s Jests promises “most brilliant jests; the politest repartees; the most elegant bon mots, and most pleasant short stories in the English language.” We can’t confirm that claim, but see for yourself. “A famous Teacher of Arithmetick, who had long been married without being able to get his Wife with Child: One said to her, Madam, your Husband is an excellent Arithmetician. Yes, replies she, only he can’t multiply.” I’ll admit, it is a pretty brilliant, polite, elegant, and pleasant way to tell a sex joke.

8. Now it’s time for some honorable mentions. Puniana, a book of puns published in 1867, contains a plethora of puns that, according to one review, “present the usual anomaly of being good, because they are so bad.” While not every joke holds up, (which is to be expected considering the 1800s weren’t history’s most politically-correct era), there’s still some pretty good stuff in there.

Here’s a lightning-round of Victorian-era puns: “What is the difference between a beehive and a diseased potato? None at all; as one is a beeholder [beholder], the other a speck’d tatur [spectator].”

“What is the best way to kill ants? Hit your uncle’s wife on the head with a hammer!”

“What is the best way of making a coat last? Make the trousers and waistcoat first.”

“What grows bigger the more you contract it? Debt!”

“When is the soup most likely to run out of the saucepan? When there’s a leek in it.”

“Why is the letter D like a hoop of gold? Because we can’t be wed without it!”

“What’s the difference between cake and wine? One is sometimes tipsy, but the other is always drunk!”

9. It wouldn’t be a List Show episode if we didn’t throw some cat trivia in here. When The Irish Times printed their newspapers in the 1890s, they had a weekly joke contest for their readers, and winning jokes were put in the Cream of Jokes section. “‘Papa,’ said Maudie, ‘why [do you] put [a] muzzle on Fido’s mouth?’ / ‘Because he bites.’ / ‘Then you ought to put a muzzle on [the cat’s feet], she scratches me with [them].’” It seems to be less of a joke and more of an observation, but the people running The Irish Times in 1892 thought it was funny enough to publish. Who are we to say they were wrong?

There is something extremely comforting about the fact that our ancestors also enjoyed a giggle from time to time. If any of these made you laugh, then props to the original comedians, whose punchlines finally came to fruition thousands of years after the fact. If there’s one universal truth to be gleaned from this, it’s that no matter where we are in time or space, human beings have a terrible sense of humor. Thanks for watching.