November 14, 2008 / 11:32 AM / 10 years ago

Ancient Greeks pre-empted Dead Parrot sketch

ATHENS (Reuters) - “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it.”

A woman walks in front of the Acropolis ruins at the sunset in Athens, August 9, 2004. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

For those who believe the ancient Greeks thought of everything first, proof has been found in a 4th century AD joke book featuring an ancestor of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch where a man returns a parrot to a shop, complaining it is dead.

The 1,600-year-old work entitled “Philogelos: The Laugh Addict,” one of the world’s oldest joke books, features a joke in which a man complains that a slave he has just bought has died, its publisher said on Friday.

“By the gods,” answers the slave’s seller, “when he was with me, he never did any such thing!”

In a British comedy act Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch, first aired in 1969 and regularly voted one of the funniest ever, the pet-shop owner says the parrot, a “Norwegian Blue,” is not dead, just “resting” or “pining for the fjords.”

The English-language book will appeal to those who swear that the old jokes are the best ones. Many of its 265 gags will seem strikingly familiar, suggesting that sex, dimwits, nagging wives and flatulence have raised laughs for centuries.

FAR-FETCHED CLOAK

In many of the jokes, a slow-witted figure known as the “student dunce” is the butt of the jokes. In one, the student dunce goes to the city and a friend asks him to buy two 15-year-old slaves: “No problem,’ responds the dunce. “If I don’t find two 15-year-olds, I’ll get one 30-year-old.’

In another, someone asks to borrow the student’s cloak to go down to the country. “I have a cloak to go down to your ankle, but I don’t have one that reaches to the country,” he replies.

The manuscript is attributed to a pair of ancient comedians called Hierocles and Philagrius. Little is known about them except that they were most likely the compilers of the jokes, not the original writers.

The multi-media e-book, which can be purchased online (www.yudu.com/oldestjokebook), features veteran British comedian Jim Bowen, 71, reviving the lines before a 21-century audience.

“Jim Bowen brings them back from the dead. It’s like Jurassic Park for jokes,” Richard Stephenson, CEO of digital publisher YUDU, said in a statement.

For Bowen, much of the material seemed very familiar: “One or two of them are jokes I’ve seen in peoples’ acts nowadays, slightly updated: they put in a motor car instead of a chariot.”

Other one-liners in Philogelos may baffle a modern audience, such as a series of jokes about a lettuce, which only make sense in light of the ancient belief it was an aphrodisiac.

editing by Peter Millership

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