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Joe Miller's Groaners: Historical Joke Books in the Research Collections

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In anticipation of April Fools’ Day, I’ve been digging around the research collection’s historical joke books in search of a good joke. Pity the poor sod who goes searching for funny jokes inside a joke book, right? Well, historically speaking, I’m not alone in this endeavor, and people have long sought to collect jokes and to find them, which is why NYPL owns hundreds of joke books that span basically the history of civilization. In fact, during the eighteenth century, British society customarily consulted and memorized jest books in preparation for social engagements; in the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was even said to have used them.

Perhaps no other joke book in the history of joke books has curried such a long, unfunny history as Joe Miller’s Joke Book—or, as it was originally titled in 1739, Joe Miller's Jests: the Wit's Vademecum. Joe Miller’s 200-year reign in Britain and the United States turned it into the benchmark against which all unfunny jokes are measured: to call a joke a “Joe Miller” was to call it a groaner, a joke that’s been heard a million times before and probably wasn’t even funny in the first place.

So where do jokes come from? People who study jokes tend to point out that jokes aren’t really invented so much as constantly evolving. They’re folktales at heart, oral stories passed down from generation to generation with their own unique DNA, a lineage dating back fifteen centuries, according to some folklorists.

In 1943, a particularly unamused librarian at the New York Public Library named Harry B. Weiss did a survey of jest books held in NYPL’s collection and published an article titled “A Brief History of American Jest Books,” about which he had this to say:

“In general it may be said that ninety-eight percent of the joke books contain no delicate epigrams, or sharp, brilliant wit, and that neither sophistication nor acute perception is needed to understand them. After reading hundreds of “jokes,” I became totally unreceptive and they produced only boredom... Many of the stories in these jest books are either only faintly humorous or absolutely pointless and there is no need to reproduce them.”

But I, dear reader, am going to give you what Harry B. Weiss failed to give you in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library in 1943—a sampling of two of Joe’s Miller’s jokes, updated for an American audience in a 1937 publication:

A man, who pretended to have seen a ghost, was asked what the ghost said to him. “How should I understand,” replied the narrator, “what he said? I am not skilled in any of the dead languages.”

When a certain nobleman was being escorted to the guillotine during the French Revolution, he annoyed his guards on the long walk from the jail to the execution, by complaining about the miserable rainy weather. He kept this up for some time, until one of the men said, very loudly, “You should have no cause for complaint. Look at us, we have to walk all the way back."

If you’re interested in researching NYPL’s historical joke books, search “wit and humor” as a subject in NYPL’s classic catalog.

Also, for anyone interested in books by G. Legman, an autodidact who used the New York Public Library for his education and who compiled and published dirty jokes over many decades, check the holdings in our catalog.

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