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[Comments] (1) Finite Jest: Today's Gutenberg text is The Jest Book, a prototypical 1001 More Jokes For Kids, which in the introduction mentions an ur-jester named Joe Miller. It presents Joe Miller as an archetype like John Bull or Jack Straw, albeit an archetype no one's ever heard of. I did a little research.

Joe Miller was a real person, an eighteenth-century "actor of farce". But his real claim to fame was having his name posthumously stuck on a book of recycled jokes: Joe Miller's JESTS: Or, the WITS VADE-MECUM. The real author, John Mottley, would have done better to put his own name on the book. But the need to capitalize on Joe Miller's late lamented hilarity took precedence over thematic consistency. Literary scholars agree that Mottley threw in the awesome phrase "Vade-mecum" as a sop to me, three hundred years later.

This uproarious success of this book caused "Joe Miller" to enter the lexicon in two different ways: as a name for any literary joke-boneyard (such as The Jest Book), and more enduringly as a term for the stale joke itself.

Sample totally unprovoked Irish joke from The Jest Book, in the style of 1001 More Jokes...:

A FELLOW on the quay, thinking to quiz a poor Irishman, asked him, "How do the potatoes eat now, Pat?" The Irish lad, who happened to have a shillalah in his hand, answered, "O! they eat very well, my jewel, would you like to taste the stalk?" and knocking the inquirer down, coolly walked off.

Good thing he had that shillalah, or there would have been no punchline!

If you crave entertainment more to the modern taste, here's a New Yorker article about the history of joke books.


Posted by Paul Collins at Mon Jan 15 2007 05:25

I never leave home without my shillelagh.


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