The Autobiography of a Good Joke

by Unknown

The diamond is precious from its scarcity, and, for the same reason, a new thought is beyond all price. Unluckily for us moderns, the ages who came before us have seized upon all the best thoughts, and it is but rarely indeed that we can stumble upon a new one. In the pride of superior knowledge, we sometimes imagine that we have succeeded in coining a new thought in the mint of our own brain; but, ten to one, if we make any researches into the matter, we shall find our bran new thought in some musty volume whose author lived a thousand years ago. This is exceedingly provoking, and has often led me to imagine that the ancients (so miscalled) have been guilty of the most atrocious plagiarisms from us, who are the real ancients of the world. It seems as if by some unhallowed species of second-sight they have been enabled to see down the dim vistas of futurity, and have thus forestalled us in the possession of the choicest thoughts and the most original ideas. This is especially the case with regard to jokes; all the best of them are as old as the hills. On rare occasions some commanding genius astonishes the world by a new joke; but this is an event,—the event of the year in which the grand thing is uttered. Hardly has it seen the light ere it passes with the utmost celerity from mouth to mouth; it makes the tour of all the tables in the kingdom, and is reproduced in newspapers and magazines, until no corner of the land has been unhonoured and ungladdened by its presence. Reader! it was once my fortune to be the creator, the Ποιητὴς, of a witticism of surpassing excellence,—of a joke which, as soon as it proceeded from my brain, made a dozen professed wits ready to burst with envy at my superior genius! Many a time since, has that bright scintillation of intellectual light brought smiles into the faces, and gladness into the hearts of millions! and many a joyous cachinnation has it caused, to the sensible diminution of apothecaries' bills and undertakers' fees! If I had been a diner-out, I might have provided myself with dinners for two years upon the strength of it; but I was contented with the honour, and left the profit to the smaller wits, who, by a process well known to themselves, contrive to extract venison out of jests, and champagne out of puns. For years I have reposed on my laurels as the inventor of a new thought; and, but for the hope that there were still more worlds to conquer, I would have folded my arms in dignified resignation, and acknowledged to myself that I had not lived in vain. About a month ago, however, my complacent pride in my production received a severe check; and circumstances ensued which have led me to doubt whether in these degenerate days it is possible for a man to imagine any new thought. I was in the society of half a dozen men of real wit, but of no pretension,—men of too joyous a nature to be envious of my achievement,—when one of them actually uttered my joke,—the joke upon which I pride myself,—coolly looking me in the face, and asserting that he was the author of it. I felt at first indignant at so dishonest an act; but, convinced of my own right, I smiled contemptuously, and said nothing. My friend noticed the smile, and saw that it was not one of mirth but of scorn, and has ever since treated me with the most marked coolness. When I returned home I retired to my chamber, and throwing myself into my comfortable arm-chair, I indulged in a melancholy reverie upon the vanity of human exertion, and the disposition so common among mankind to rob the great of their dearly-acquired glory. "Even Homer," said I to myself, "did not escape the universal fate. Some deny his very existence, and assert that his sublime epic was the combined work of several ballad-mongers; others, again, generously acknowledge his existence, but still assert that he was no poet, but the mere singer of the verses that abler men composed! And, if Homer has not escaped detraction and injustice, shall I?" These, and similar thoughts, gradually growing more and more confused and indistinct, occupied my attention for a full hour. A bottle of champagne, corked up and untasted, stood upon the table before me. It was just the dim faint dawn of early morning; and in the grey obscurity I could plainly distinguish the black bottle as it stood between me and the window. Notwithstanding the hour, I felt half-inclined to take a draught of the generous juice it contained, and was stretching forth my hand for that purpose, when, to my great surprise, the bottle gave a sudden turn, and commenced dancing round the table. Gradually two arms sprouted forth from its sides; and, giving them a joyous twirl, the bottle skipped about more nimbly than before, and to my eyes seemed endeavouring to dance a Highland fling. I thought this very extraordinary behaviour on the part of the bottle. I rubbed my eyes, but I was wide awake. I pinched myself, and came to the same conclusion. As I continued to gaze, the mysterious bottle grew larger and larger, and suddenly sprung up as tall as myself. Immediately afterwards, the cork, which had become supernaturally large and round, changed colour, and turned to a ruddy hue; and I could by degrees distinguish a pair of sparkling eyes, and a whole set of rubicund features smiling upon me with the most benign expression. The forehead of this apparition was high and bald, and marked with wrinkles,—not of decrepitude, but of a hale old age,—while a few thin grey hairs hung straggling over his temples. As soon as my astonishment was able to vent itself in words, I addressed the apparition in a query, which has since become extremely popular, and called out to it, "Who are you?"

The Autobiography of a Joke

Ere it had time to reply to this classical question, my eyes fell upon a roll of parchment which it held in its hand, and on which were inscribed the magic words of my joke.

"Do you not know me?" said this Eidolon of my wit, pointing to the scroll. "I am the joke upon which you pride yourself, and, although I say it myself, one of the best jokes that ever was uttered. Don't you know me?"

"I can't say that I should have recognised you," said I, as I felt my heart yearning with paternal kindness towards him; "but—Come to my arms, my son, my progeny!"

"Aha! ha! ha!" said the Joke, looking at me with very unfilial impertinence, and holding his sides with laughter.

"The contempt with which you treat me is exceedingly unbecoming," said I with much warmth, and with the air of an offended parent; "and, what is more, sir, it is unfeeling and unnatural—'tis past a joke, sir!"

"'Tis no joke!" said the Joke, still laughing with all his might, and peering at me from the corners of his eyes, the only parts of those orbits which mirth permitted to remain open; "really, my good friend, the honour to which you lay claim is nowise yours. Lord bless your foolish vanity! I was a patriarch before the days of your great grandfather!"

"Pooh, pooh!" said I, "it cannot be! You know that you are my production;—you cannot be serious in denying it."

"I am not often serious," said the Joke, putting on a look of comic gravity; "but there is no reason for so much solemnity in telling an unimportant truth. However, we will not argue the point; I will proceed at once to tell you my history, to convince you how little claim you have to the honours of paternity in my case."

"I shall be very happy," said I, with more reverence than I had yet assumed towards my mysterious visitor.

"For fear you should find me dry," said the Joke, "get a bottle of wine."

I did as I was desired, drew the cork, filled two glasses, one of which I handed to the Joke, who, nodding good-humouredly at me, commenced the following narrative.


"I have not the slightest recollection of my progenitors; like the great Pharaohs who built the pyramids, their names have sunk into oblivion in the lapse of ages. They must, however, have lived more than thirty centuries ago, as my reminiscences extend nearly as far back as that period. I could, if I would, draw many curious pictures of the state of society in those early ages, having mixed all my life with persons of every rank and condition, and traversed many celebrated regions. I say it with pride that I have always delighted to follow in the track of civilization, and claim as a great honour to myself and the other members of my fraternity, that we have in some degree contributed to hasten the mighty march of human intelligence. It is only savage nations who are too solemn and too stupid to appreciate a joke, and upon these people I never condescended to throw myself away. One of my earliest introductions to society took place about two thousand five hundred years ago, among a company of merchants who were traversing the great deserts of Arabia. Methinks I see their faces now, and the very spot where they first made acquaintance with me. It was towards sunset, under a palm-tree, beside a fountain, where the caravan had stopped to drink the refreshing waters. It has been often said that grave people love a joke, and it was a grave old trader who showed me off on this occasion, to the infinite delight of his companions, who laughed at my humour till the tears ran down their cheeks. In this manner I traversed the whole of civilized Asia, and visited at different periods the luxurious tables of Sardanapalus and Ahasuerus, and brought smiles into the faces of the queenly beauties of their courts. From Asia I passed into Greece, and I remember that I used often to sit with the soldiers round their watch-fires at the siege of Troy. At a much later period I was introduced to Homer, and shall always remember with pleasure that I was the means of procuring him a supper when, but for me, he would have gone without one. The poor peasants to whom the still poorer bard applied for a supper and a lodging, had no relish for poetry; but they understood a joke, and the bard brought me forth for their entertainment; and, while my self-love was flattered by their hearty laughter, his wants were supplied by their generous hospitality. But I was not only acquainted with Homer, for Aristophanes very happily introduced me into one of his lost comedies. Anacreon and I were boon companions; and, while upon this part of my career, you will permit me to give vent to a little honest pride, by informing you in few words that I once brought a smile into the grave face of the divine Plato; that I was introduced into an argument by no less an orator than Demosthenes; that I was familiarly known to Esop; that I supped with Socrates; and was equally well received in the court of Philip of Macedon and the camp of his victorious son. Still a humble follower in the train of civilization, I passed over to Rome. I was not very well received by the stiff, stern men of the republic; but in the age of Augustus I was universally admired. The first time that I excited any attention was at the table of Mecśnas, when Horace was present. I may mention by the way that it was Horace himself who, in a tÍte-ŗ-tÍte, first made known my merits to his illustrious patron, and the latter took the first opportunity of showing me off. I was never in my life more flattered than at the enthusiastic reception I met from the men of genius there assembled, although I have since thought that I was somewhat indebted for my success to the wealth and station of the illustrious joker. However that may be, my success was certain; and so much was I courted, that I was compelled to visit every house in Rome where wit and good-humour stood any chance of being appreciated. After living in this manner for about a hundred years, I took it into my head to go to sleep; and I slept so long, that, when I awoke, I found the victorious Hun in the streets of the city. This was no time for me to show my face; and, seeing so little prospect of happy times for me and my race, I thought I could not do better than go to sleep again. I did so, and when I awoke this second time found myself at the gay court of old king Renť of Provence. Among the bright ladies and amorous troubadours who held their revels there, I was much esteemed. There was, however, I am bound in candour to admit, some falling-off in my glory about this period. I was admitted to the tables of the great, it is true; but I was looked upon as a humble dependent, and obliged to eat out of the same platter with the hired jester. I could not tolerate this unworthy treatment for ever, and it had such an effect upon me that I soon lost much of my wonted spirit and humour. In fact, I was continually robbed of my point by these professed wits, and often made to look uncommonly stupid; so much so, that my friends sometimes doubted of my identity, and denied that I was the same joke they had been accustomed to laugh at. I contrived, however, to be revenged occasionally upon the unlucky jesters who introduced me mal-ŗ-propos. They used to forget that their masters were not always in a humour to be tickled by a joke, and a sound drubbing was very often the only reward of their ill-timed merriment. This was some slight consolation to me; but I could not tolerate long the low society of these hired buffoons, and, as I did not feel sleepy, I was obliged to think of some scheme by which I might escape the continual wear and tear, and loss of polish, that I suffered at their hands. I at last resolved to shut myself up in a monastery, and lead a life of tranquillity and seclusion. You need not smile because so merry a personage as myself chose to be immured within the walls of a monastery, for I assure you that in the intellectual society of the monks,—the only intellectual society that one could meet with in those days,—I was soon restored to my original brightness. I lived so well and so luxuriously among these good people, that I quickly grew sleek and lazy, and somehow or other I fell into a doze, from which I was not awakened until a wit in the reign of Elizabeth stumbled upon me, and again brought me out into the busy world. I ran a splendid career in England."

"Did you?" said I, interrupting the Joke at this part of his narrative, and appealing to him with considerable energy of manner, for I began to be apprehensive that some of my friends, more learned than myself, might have discovered the antiquity of my "joke," and would quiz me on the subject. I restrained my impetuosity, however, and, with some alarm depicted in my countenance, I asked him in a trembling voice, "Did you—did you—ever—meet with—Joe Miller?"

"D—Joe Miller!" said the Joke with much vivacity; "I suffered more from the dread of that fellow than I ever suffered in my life. I had the greatest difficulty in keeping out of his way, and I only managed it by going to sleep again. You awoke me from that slumber, when, like many others who came before you, you passed me off as your own. You remember you got much credit for me, as all ever have done who have good sense enough to introduce me only at a proper time, and wit enough to launch me forth with all my native grace and brilliancy about me."

"Then you are not a Joe?" said I, much relieved.

"A Joe!" said the Joke, reddening with anger. "Have I not told you already that I am not? Do you mean to insult me by the vile insinuation that I ever showed my face in such despicable company? Do you think, sir, that I am a pun?"

"Oh, by no means," said I; "I assure you I meant no offence."

"You did, sir," replied the Joke, striking his fist upon the table with great vehemence. Immediately afterwards I observed that his face became dreadfully distorted, and he shook his head convulsively from side to side. As I continued to gaze without the power of saying a single word to calm the irritation I had so unintentionally raised, I noticed that his neck grew every instant longer and longer, until his chin seemed to be fully two feet from his shoulders. I was unable to endure the sight, and rising up, half frantic with nervous excitement, I put my hand convulsively upon his head, with the benevolent intention of squeezing it down to its proper level. He glared furiously at me with his swollen eyes, and, horrible to relate, just as I came in contact with him, his head flew off with a tremendous explosion, and bounced right through a chimney-glass that ornamented my mantel-piece. The glass flew in shivers round me. In a dreadful state of alarm I rang the bell for assistance, and sank down overpowered upon the chair.

"Beggin' your honour's pardon for being so bould," said my tiger, a good-natured Irish boy named Phelim, who had entered at the summons, "I think your honour had better drink a bottle of soda-water and go to bed."

"Where's his head, Phelim?" said I.

"Your own, or the bed's?" said Phelim.

"The Joke's," replied I.

"Och, you must mane your own; it's light enough, I dare say," said Phelim as he pulled my boots off. "You took a dhrop too much last night, anyhow."

"Phelim," said I solemnly, "did you hear nothing?"

"To be sure I did," said Phelim. "Haven't you, like a drunken baste as you are, (begging your pardon for my bouldness,) been trying to broach that bottle of champagne at this early hour of the mornin', and haven't you driven the cork through the lookin'-glass?"

I looked at the bottle; it was uncorked, and the champagne was even at that moment sparkling over the neck of the bottle, and running over my books and papers.

"A pretty piece of work you have made of it," said Phelim, picking up the cork and pointing to the looking-glass.

"'Twas a good joke," said I, although my faith was somewhat staggered by Phelim's explanation.

"Troth, an' I'm glad you take it so asy," said Phelim, ramming the cork into the bottle; "you'll find it a dear one when the landlady brings in her bill for the lookin'-glass. But never mind it, sir, now. Go to bed and get sober."

I took Phelim's advice, and went to bed. To this day I am unable positively to decide whether his explanation was the true one or not. I incline, however, to the belief that I was not drunk, but that the illustrious Joke actually visited me in propri‚ person‚. I am the more inclined to this belief from the remarkable coherency of his narrative, which I now leave, without a word of comment, to the consideration of the curious.