The Laughter Lover
I should have known that giving a big lecture about the late Roman joke book (called the The Laughter Lover or, in Greek, Philogelos) in Comic Relief week would attract more interest in this particular by-way of the Classics than usual. But when -- months ago -- I fixed the date to go to Newcastle for the gig, I hadn't realised that it was Comic Relief.
In fact, I didnt actually realise the coincidence till someone pointed it out just before the lecture started. "Funny you're lecturing on Roman jokes when it's Red Nose Day tomorrow," they said.
Anyway, thanks to the efficent press-release put out by Newcastle University, there had already been a number of media enquiries to my mobile phone before I reached the banks of the Tyne. In this case, they were quite hard to deal with. The problem was that most of the journalists had got the impression that I had actually discovered -- or dug up, perhaps -- a new and entirely unknown book of Roman jokes.
The Daily Mail asked if they could have a picture of it, and didn't seem quite to understand why a picture of Roger Dawe's Teubner text (which is all I could offer) wasn't actually what they were looking for.
It was hard to get the point across that the text had been known for centuries (Dr Johnson had been keen on it and Jim Bowen had recently performed parts of it), but that I was looking at it harder than anyone had done for ages and in a new way. That's what being 'new' is, for the most part, in Classics.
Still, I soon found that having a little repertoire of ancientjokes that I could quote, tailored to the paper or show in question, did the trick. I even found some that pleased the man from The Sun.
I think the biggest hit with The Sun was this one.
"A man says to his sex-crazed wife, "What shall we do tonight -- have dinner or have sex?". "Whichever you like," she replied, "but there's no bread."
Oddly the interest didn't fade once Red Nose Day had passed. The Today Programme wanted a joke or two for the programme on Saturday morning. This was a bit of a problem, as I was due at my Speed Awareness Training in Milton Keynes by 9.30 (and the husband had rightly said that I was to be out of the house by 7.30). In the end I told the gags over the phone at 7.25, before zooming (no, not zooming) off in the car.
I did, and spend the last few minutes before 9.30 pre-recording an interview via my mobile, to be used later in the day. Plaudits where they are due. The World Service outstripped even the Today Programme in intelligence. There was no need to explain the nature of the 'discovery' and we spent five minutes talking about the interesting way that these Roman jokes played on questions of disputed identity (which I'm particularly interested in).
And I gave them my favourite joke.
"Three men -- a scholasticos (an egghead), a barber and a baldman -- were going on a long journey and had to camp out at night. They decided to take it in shifts to watch over the luggage. The barber took the first shift, but got bored. So to pass the time, he shaved the head of the scholasticos -- then woke him up to take his turn. The scholasticos got up, rubbed his head and found that he had no hair. "What and idiot that barber is," he said, "he's woken up baldy instead of me."