Words of wisdom: ‘Not everything people laugh at is witty’

The celebrated orator Cicero (106-43 BC) was widely seen as someone who just couldn’t resist a joke.

People regard puns as the most ingenious of all, but they aren’t always just jokes; they’re often the basis of serious remarks, too. When Scipio Africanus kept trying to put a garland on his head at a party and it kept coming apart, Varus told him:

‘Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t fit, for your head is great.’
That was impressive and dignified. Still, this is in the same category:
‘His name’s “Baldwin”?! Sounds right: he did win by a hair…’

In short, there isn’t any type of joke that can’t also be a source of serious and earnest remarks.

And here’s another point to take note of, that not everything people laugh at is witty. I mean, nothing makes people laugh quite like a clown: the face, expressions, the impressions he does, the voice, his whole entire body makes people laugh! So I can say he’s ‘funny’, but not the way I’d like an orator to be; he’s funny like a street performer. Hence,

• This first category – which maximizes laughs – isn’t for us: too cynical, gullible, paranoid, virtue-signaling, stupid. Such people get laughs because they’re walking stereotypes, and usually we give people like that a hard time, we don’t act like them.
• A second category consists of mimicry. It’s really pretty funny, but we only get to do it on the sly, if ever, and in passing. Otherwise, it’s not something gentlemen should do.
• Third is distorting the face. It’s beneath us.
• A fourth, obscenity, is not only inappropriate to public life, but it should hardly be heard even at private parties.

Cicero, On the Ideal Orator, 2.250-252

Should the jury be laughing during something as serious as a trial? Some Romans thought so. The celebrated orator Cicero (106-43 BC), the later rhetorician Quintilian (c. AD 35-100) writes, was widely seen as someone who just couldn’t resist a joke. Cicero – a senator, consul, lawyer, and letter-writer – is today known for his often-witty defence speeches in the law courts. As he writes in On the Ideal Orator (which contains the longest surviving ancient treatise on humour), laughter can be a powerful tool in winning over a crowd and dispelling pesky doubts over unfavourable facts. But an orator must remain above certain types of joke, such as those fit to street performers and clowns, mimicry, comical facial expressions, and obscenity. One type of humour that is more suitable for public life is that based on language – puns, subtly tweaking your opponents’ words, and playing on names.

Ingenious though they may be to some ears, puns were not for everyone. Quintilian also wrote about humour in his Education of the Orator, drawing examples from Cicero’s works. He too objected to obscenity, gesticulating, and hurtful jokes, but he also regarded puns with a certain amount of disdain – even those of that earlier master of oratory, Cicero himself.

Further information
This passage from Cicero’s On the Ideal Orator comes from How to Tell a Joke: an ancient guide to the art of humour, selected, translated, and introduced by Michael Fontaine, and is reprinted here by permission. The book is published by Princeton University Press as part of their Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (ISBN 978-0691206165, price £13.99).