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A history of laughter – from Cicero to The Simpsons

June 27, 2014

One of Enoch Powell’s most famous quips was prompted by an encounter with the resident House of Commons barber: a notoriously chatty character, who enjoyed treating captive clients to his views on politics and the state of the world. When Powell went in for a trim, the barber asked the standard question: “How should I cut your hair, Sir?” “In silence,” was Powell’s instant riposte.

Even Powell’s political enemies have usually admitted, a bit grudgingly, that this was a rather good joke. But what they haven’t realised is that it has a history going back more than 2,000 years. Almost exactly the same gag features in a surviving Roman joke book: the Philogelos (or Laughter Lover), a collection of wisecracks probably compiled in the fourth or fifth century AD. As with most such collections, some of the jokes included were already decidedly old by the time they were anthologised. In fact, we can trace the “chatty barber” gag back to Archelaus, a fifth-century BC king of Macedon. The “how should I cut your hair?” question was standard even then. And Archelaus is supposed to have replied to his own garrulous barber, “In silence.”

Presumably part of the fun for Powell (who was a better classicist than politician) was that he knew exactly how ancient the joke was. Whereas others admired what they believed to be his spontaneous quip, he must have been taking pleasure in the secret knowledge that he was merely repeating the age-old gag of an ancient Macedonian king, and one that may already have been prompting more groans than giggles when it was featured in the Roman Philogelos.

Read full article at The Guardian

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