An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humour

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Trans and intro by Michael Fontaine  ISBN 978-0-691-20616-5

Princeton £13.99

Reviewed by Alan Dent


The first half is extracted from Cicero’s On The Ideal Orator, the second is Quintillian’s On The Art of Humour. Cicero was renowned in his time for his oratorical skills, often employed in forensic circumstances. Both authors are concerned with humour as a feature of oratory, that is , they aren’t anatomising the techniques of the stand-up, the person who plays to the gallery, for whom there are no limits, who will descend to the lowest common denominator, in short, anything for a laugh. There is, of course, another point: stand-ups are trying to make money; Cicero and Quintillian are more on the side of humour as a weapon in the fight for justice, a way of getting behind pretentions and exposing fakery.  

Cicero employs three speakers as examples: Julius Caesar, Crassus and Mark Antony (not the famous ones).The essential question, raised by the last of these three, is whether humour can be taught. Needless to say, the book draws no conclusion, but it suggests that though a certain degree of tutoring humour can be effective, it’s probably true that the comic mind has an innate quality. Throughout, there’s an attempt to find the rules. Caesar argues there are two kinds of joke: the one which rests at the core of a speech and shapes it and the quick-fire, razor-edged sort. Antony claims that come-backs are a sign of politeness, in that they suggest we would not have made a joke had we not been provoked. Quintillian thinks humour resides in “saying something in a different, wrong and untrue way” and that it emanates from inventing beliefs, either our own or other people’s, or from saying something impossible. He also argues that laughs come about from the body of the person we’re talking about, his mind as inferred from his behaviour or external circumstances. Eschewing the possibility of hunting down every type of joke and their sources, he provides, as does Cicero, catalogue of examples: when Cicero in his sixties married a young virgin, he is reputed to have quipped, “She’ll be a woman tomorrow.” It has a certain sharpness, but it’s cynical and self-excusing. A man is bemoaning the loss of his wife who has hung herself from a fig tree. The quip in response is: “Any chance I could get a cutting from that tree for grafting?” Jokes about the trials of marriage are legion, essentially because it makes demands few can measure up to. Perhaps the jokes should be aimed at the institution rather than its victims. In this instance, the response is a little too wordy. All that’s needed is: “Any chance of a cutting?” 

Cicero goes to heart of the matter when he tries to specify the sources of laughter: surprises, making fun of other people’s quirks or giving a clue to your own, comparing a thing to something worse, disingenuousness, non-sequiturs and criticizing stupidity. Groucho Marx opined that comedy is much harder to write than tragedy because everyone cries at the same things but everyone laughs at different things. Henri Bergson, in one of the most pertinent modern examinations of the question, believed that humour lies in “du mécanique plaque sur du vivant” (something mechanical layered over something living). The classic example is the person who slips on the banana skin, instantaneously transformed from a living creature in control of her actions, to a mere mechanism at the mercy of a slippery item. Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion, however, is found in Ramachandran’s work on the brain. His theory is that humour results from the disappointment of expectations. A joke leads us up the garden path only to shatter what we have imagined will follow: 

            Wife: I’m going to put the ladders up and paint the bedroom ceiling.           

            Husband: Do nothing till I’ve checked the insurance. 

The response subverts in more than one way: first of all because the husband should be more concerned for his wife’s safety than for what he could claim if she fell and killed herself; secondly because the content of the conversation switches suddenly from domestic banality to the possibility of death; thirdly because the exchange points to a wider cynicism, a culture in which putatively devoted spouses calculate about financial gain. 

Humour, like language is exclusively human. Many animals exhibit an ability for play, but as far as we know, none makes jokes or laughs. Both Cicero and Quintillian observe that much humour comes from word-play, ambiguity, double-entendres. It may be the connection is vital. Is humour an adaptation?  Are there people who don’t find anything funny? It seems unlikely, but perhaps humour is more like music than language. Music is found in all cultures but not everyone is musical in the way all people (short of brain damage) are linguistic. Maybe humour is an exaptation and the cascade of neurons which brings the sense of amusement we experience when what we anticipate is subverted, evolved for some other purpose, maybe as a warning. Humour usually contains a little edginess, it rests on a willingness to play with ideas and meaning, which is why it’s useful for mocking dictators and why tyrants tend not to favour satirists.  

How to tell a joke is not the same thing as how to write a joke. Great comic writers – Terence, Rabelais, Chaucer, Molière, Orton – employ techniques similar to those of the professional purveyors of jokes, but their humour is embedded in works whose overarching purpose is serious. Jokes told by politicians or stand-ups tend not to be associated with such high-mindedness. Humour is part of our biological inheritance. The uses it is put to are cultural. Michael Fontaine has made a fascinating selection to convey how humour was employed by some of the great orators of the ancient world. If the book leaves us with the question of what humour is, so much the better.