Comedy legend, former host of the TV gameshow Bullseye and a Great British institution, Jim Bowen has brought the world's oldest joke book to the London stage.

Some of the jokes he told during his stand-up routine come from a 1,600 year old Greek joke book called Philogelos: The Laugh Addict

Jim Bowen brings the world's oldest joke book to the London stage... and reveals the ancestor of Monty Python's Dead Parrot

By Daily Mail Reporter
13th November 2008
Daily Mail

Heard the one about the man who bought a slave which died?

You may have recently: it was performed on a London stage by comic legend Jim Bowen.

But the show was not exactly new or fresh - instead, the veteran comic was performing material from what may be the world's oldest joke book.

Made 1,600 years ago by the Greeks and unearthed from recently translated manuscripts, some of the jokes bear striking similarities with the famous Dead Parrot comedy sketch made by the Monty Python team.

Heard the one about... Jim Bowen tries out the jokes on the London stage

The fourth century manuscript Philogelos: The Laugh Addict, which has been translated and put onto the internet as an e-book, contains a joke where a man complains that a slave he was sold had died.

"When he was with me, he never did any such thing!" is the reply.

See the full Philogelos joke e-book here (external - login to view)

In the Python sketch, written 1,600 years later, the shopkeeper claims the dead parrot is 'pining for the fjords'.

The 265 jokes in Philogelos are attributed to a pair of wisecracs called Hierocles and Philagrius, about whom very little is known.

The multimedia online e-book features video of Mr Bowen bringing the old jokes back to life in front of a 21st century audience at 'Downstairs at the King's Head' in north London.

Some of the jokes are strikingly similar to modern ones, with subjects including farts, sex, ugly wives and a dimwit referred to as 'a student dunce'.

'One or two of them are jokes I've seen in people's acts nowadays, slightly updated,' said Bowen.

You see this parrot...: Greek manuscripts reveal that a similar joke to the one made by John Cleese and Michael Palin in the Monty Python sketch (pictured) was made 1,600 years earlier

'They put in a motor car instead of a chariot - some of them are Tommy Cooper-esque,' he added.

Some jokes are likely to baffle modern audiences, however - especially the ones about lettuce, which only make sense if you share the ancient superstition that the vegetable is an aphrodisiac.

The book has been translated by William Berg, an American professor of Classics.

'The text of Philogelos comes to us from several manuscripts ranging from the 11th to the 15th centuries," Berg said.

'All of them trace back to an earlier original, probably - judging from the content and language - from the 4th Century.'

Other jokes in the book include:
  • Someone needled a well-known wit: "I had your wife, without paying a penny". He replied: "It's my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?"
  • An Abderite sees a eunuch talking with a woman and asks him if she's his wife. The guy responds that a eunuch is unable to have a wife. "Ah, so she's your daughter? "
  • A misogynist is attending to the burial of his wife, who has just died, when someone asks: "Who is it who rests in peace here?". He answers: "Me, now that I'm rid of her!"
  • A fellow says to a butcher from Sidon, 'Lend me a knife as far as Smyma.' 'I don't have a knife that reaches that far,' answers the butcher.
  • Consulting a hot-headed doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'
  • A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as her dowry, he responds, ' She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'
  • Discovering a ladder has twenty steps going up, a student dunce asks if there are just as many going down.
  • A Kymaean is selling a house. He carries around one of its building blocks to show what it's like.
  • A Kymaean is out swimming when it starts to rain. Not wanting to get wet, he dives down as deep as he can.
  • A stupid astrologer tells someone's fortune: 'You are not fated to produce heirs.' 'But I have seven boys!' objects his client. 'Well, better keep an eye on them,' advises the astrologer.