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The genesis of a joke

It was just half an hour to the summer break. The patience of the students started to wear out. In his 23 years of experience, the history professor had never seen his students calm and focussed on the last day of a semester. There was some time to spare, and the professor decided to strike up a conversation with his students. “So, guys, what’s new in memes these days?” he asked.

Everyone started talking about their favourite memes, vines, and quips. But when the professor asked if anyone knew about the origin of memes, there was a deafening silence. Then, he asked a simpler question. “Do you know who Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle are?” Everyone yelled ‘yes’ in unison. Who wouldn’t know the comedians who—with their jokes—have made the world laugh. “But where did jokes even come from?” the professor asked, launching into a full-fledged lecture.

“There is an extant Grecian jestbook Philogelos that was published over 1600 years ago. Philogelos or Laughter Lover, a collection of 265 jokes written in Greek, is the oldest surviving book on jokes. From the 10th to the 15th century was a period of renaissance for quips. After that, the popularity of jokes in Europe spread like wildfire due to the advent of printing technology and chapbooks. Easy to print and carry, the chapbooks were the bible of jokes in the 16th and 17th century. Many comedians from Europe published their material in chapbooks, which were distributed in mass just like newspapers. Among them, Rabelais in France, Till Eulenspiegel in Germany, Lazarillo de Tormes in Spain and Master Skelton in England made it to the history books for their unconventional approach to humour and their distinctive style.

 

“Then, everything changed in the digital era of 21st century. The chapbooks were replaced by the internet, which transformed jokes into a global source of entertainment.”


However, not everyone earned praises for their unconventional jokes or profound parodies. Even satirical mocking of the government or the royal family through jokes was prohibited. The Anglo-Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift received backlashes when he published his famous Juvenalian essay in the 18th century A Modest Proposal. Raising voice against the negligence of the crown towards the poor, Jonathan wrote: ‘Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.’

Then, everything changed in the digital era of 21st century. The chapbooks were replaced by the internet, which transformed jokes into a global source of entertainment. Jokes have evolved into memes that rely on visuals and are mostly relatable one-liners. Everyone can joke about anything and anyone—culture, race, gender, inequality, even presidents and monarchs!”

The professor concluded his narration of the journey of jokes. The bell rang, but no one stood up from their seat. They had no idea that something as mundane as jokes could have such an interesting—and long—history. Now, every time they come across a joke, they will remember their professor’s narration of the evolution of humour.

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