‘Did You Hear the One …’

What to do when a good joke becomes bad taste.

Frontispiece of the 1859 edition of the Complete Jestbook, with facing page. Internet Archive.

What should we do with old jokes? The question of whether to censor and recontextualise the now problematic humour of earlier generations is often characterised as a modern battleground in our ongoing ‘culture wars’, but a remarkably similar process unfolded at the beginning of the Victorian era. 

In December 1835 advertisements appeared in newspapers announcing the publication of a new joke book – or, rather, the republication of a famous old joke book, suitably ‘corrected, with all the latest improvements’.

Joe Miller’s Jests; or, the Wit’s Vade-Mecum was first published in London in 1739. It promised a ‘collection of the most brilliant Jests; the politest Repartees; the most elegant Bon mots, and most pleasant short stories in the English language’. The book was compiled by the dramatist John Mottley and named in honour of a celebrated comic actor, although later accounts insist that this tribute was a sarcastic in-joke about Miller’s dour off-stage personality. The book was phenomenally successful, running to dozens of editions, and was regularly expanded via unofficial sequels and spin-offs. Joe Miller’s name, deservedly or not, quickly became synonymous with the art of joke-telling.

The 1835 version of Joe Miller was ‘copiously expanded’ to over 1,300 jests, up from the original book’s 247, and promised readers that 198 from the original had been retained. Some, however, had been cut or modified to suit the ‘greater delicacy’ of ‘modern society and conversation’: 49 jokes from the 1730s were now considered off-limits. Examining these condemned jokes reveals the changing nature of comic taste and wider public sensibilities during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Jokes of a sexual nature were cut. Gags about cuckolded husbands, promiscuous ‘wenches’, infidelity, impotence and erections were all censored: 

A Gentleman said of a young Wench, who constantly ply’d about the Temple, that if she had as much Law in her Head, as she had had in her Tail, she would be one of the ablest Counsel in England.

A Country Farmer going across his Grounds in the Dusk of the Evening, spy’d a young Fellow and a Lass, very busy near a five Bar Gate, in one of his Fields, and calling to them to know what they were about, said the young Man, no Harm, Farmer, we are only going to Prop-a-Gate.

Many of these saucy jokes gloried in the debauched antics of rakish men-about-town – characters who fell out of favour as new codes of respectable masculinity became dominant.

Jokes emphasising women’s sexual agency and promiscuity were even more behind the times. In the original Joe Miller, a jest about a pregnant woman with two lovers openly played with the identity of the child’s father:

A Gentlewoman growing big with Child, who had two Gallants, one of them with a wooden Leg, the Question was put, which of the two should father the Child. He who had the wooden leg offer’d to decide it thus. If the Child, said he, comes into the World with a wooden Leg, I will father it, if not, it must be yours.

Victorian and Edwardian jokes on the same theme, such as this one from Answers magazine (1906), would typically tread no further than a girl flirting with multiple suitors in her family’s parlour:

Mr Goodley: ‘How does your sister like the engagement ring I gave her, Bobby?’
Her Younger Brother: ‘Well, it’s a little too small. She has an awful hard time getting it off when the other fellows call!’

Bad language, blasphemy, unpleasant odours and bodily functions were also deemed too crude for the new Joe Miller. This example was disqualified on multiple counts:

A Gentleman happening to turn up against a House to make Water, did not see two young Ladies looking out of a Window close by him, ‘till he heard them giggling, then looking towards them, he asked, what made them so merry? O! Lord, Sir, said one of them, a very little Thing will make us laugh.

While Victorian printed humour assumed an increasing air of respectability, cruder jokes continued to circulate in private. The diaries of Henry Silver, a long-term contributor to Punch, reveal weekly dinner parties in which well-known writers exchanged ribald jests that would never have appeared in print. Meanwhile, underground pornographic magazines, such as The Pearl (1879-81), featured coarse sexual limericks that would have made a Georgian blush. The same, of course, is true today – racist jokes banished from the airwaves are still told in private.

It is tempting to see the censorship of Joe Miller as a reactionary and conservative act, particularly now that 18th-century humour is back in vogue – fart gags, after all, are a staple of children’s books and comedians happily joke about their sex lives. Moreover, the fact that Victorian jesters continued to share racist and sexist jokes while censoring bawdy ones puts them further out of step with modern sensibilities. However, while old-school libertines like Byron complained about the public’s increasingly censorial mood – ‘the Cant’, he complained in 1819, ‘is so much stronger than the Cunt now a days’ – others regarded it as progress, detoxifying aspects of public culture that no longer met contemporary values. 

Condemning old jokes is not a radical and reactionary new weapon, but the evolution of public taste. When the Victorians looked back at the humour of their grandparents, they found plenty to admire – 198 of Joe Miller’s original jests were retained, after all – but were quick to abandon jokes that caused new offence. Future generations will undoubtedly wince at punchlines we now regard as progressive. We can, and should, preserve offensive historical jokes in our archives, because they reveal so much about the past, but there comes a point when it is right to stop telling them.

 

Bob Nicholson is Reader in History at Edge Hill University and curator of The Old Joke Archive.