But then a solid candidate for the title of first recorded jest, the ur-gag, emerged. "Found: the oldest joke in the world," read the headline in the Sunday Times of London on June 29, 1997. Inscribed on a roll of papyrus, the hoary jape could be translated as a riddle: "How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish."
I guess you had to be there (in 2600 b.c., when King Snefru received this wink-wink nudge-nudge advice from the court magician Djadjamankh.) Or perhaps it was funnier in the original hieroglyphic. (Asp jackal ibis? Wiggly line, ankh, feather!)
Carol Andrews, formerly of the Egyptian antiquities department of the British Museum, and now a lecturer at the University of London, notes that the ancient Egyptians were amused by nudity, drunkenness, slapstick and political satire. The magician's sly suggestion appears within a political treatise; the fishing trip precipitates a convoluted narrative meant to underscore the cosmic inevitability of the new dynasty's rule. Andrews says Djadjamankh's advice was probably meant as droll social commentary. Still, she concedes that the quip could reasonably be considered the world's first recorded joke. It's 4,608 years old—but still sounds so fresh you'd swear it is only 4,607.