When Russell went off to Camp Seagull in the Carolinas as a young lad, Kish and I waited with trepidation for his first letter home.
Most camps in those days didn’t let kids call home for a few weeks. Campers could write letters, but not call — the reasoning being that hearing Mom’s voice might just produce even great bouts of homesickness. So we waited, and when Russell’s letter arrived we tore it open and read it eagerly. We realized that he would be OK when we got to the part where he said he thought he would really like his cabin mates because “they all thought farts were funny, too.”
It turns out that Russell and his Camp Seagull buddies had a lot in common with the ancient Sumerians, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift.
A recent article tackles the important and surprisingly under-researched topic of flatulence humor in literature. It reports that the earliest known fart joke in history is also the oldest known joke, period — which tells you something about the significance of flatulence humor in human civilization — came from the Sumerians circa 1900 B.C. It is: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Admittedly, it doesn’t really seem very funny these days, but let’s give the ancient Sumerians a break — since it was the very first known joke in history, we can’t reasonably expect Seinfeld levels of humor, and besides, we’re probably missing some important sound effects that accompanied the gibe and dramatically increased the humor quotient.
Of course, fart references were found in Chaucer and Shakespeare — where your British Literature professors might dismissively refer to them as “bawdy humor” — and in Mark Twain’s writing, too. Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, seems to have been weirdly obsessed with breaking wind. Writing under a pseudonym, he penned an entire book on the subject called The Benefit of Farting Explained that articulated, in painstaking detail, Swift’s views on the different categories of farts.
So if you read or heard about the recent report about the unfortunate woman who passed gas during surgery in a Tokyo hospital, igniting a laser being used during the procedure, and thought it was funny even though the woman was burned as a result, you’re not alone. Humans have been chuckling about farts since the dawn of recorded history — and probably for as long as humans have been around at all.