There’s something appealingly timeless about comedy. Laughing together is a very unifying experience. Laughing across the millenia is a mind blowing experience.

One of the best things about the BBC is the output of very high quality topical satirical comedy, often showcased in Radio 4’s Friday 6.30pm slot. This week’s Now Show was no exception. “The Now Show” is a perfectly ironic name for these wonderfully ironic comedians. Satire is one of the most ancient forms of comedy, almost as ancient as the first time anyone laughed when someone else fell over.

The Now Show

Our word satire has an interestingly muddled etymology. It comes from the Latin satira – satire, poetic medley; which in turns comes from the Latin word satura – a mixture, hotchpotch; a word that grew out of the dish lanx satura which is a dish full of a mix of fruits. The root verb for all of these is saturo – fill, glut etc. However, despite not technically having anything to do with the Greek tradition of Satyr plays, the words got sort of conflated, and our words satirise, satirical are derived from the Greek, not the Latin.

Diversion into etymology aside, the ancients were creating satire before they had a word for it. As with almost everything in ancient comedy, it all comes back to Aristophanes, the greatest exponent of what Classicists call “old comedy”. The surviving plays of his that we have are all satires – they are plays that make us laugh and make us think. They poke fun at the world around him – politics and politicians; culture; rich people; poor people; religion…

But back to last Friday. The Now Show always starts with an extended monologue, brought to life by asides and dramatisations from cast members. This week’s was about Greece’s economic situation and was crammed full of Classical jokes and references…

Listen to the Now Show on BBC iplayer

The Now Show, BBC Radio 4 – 1st July 2011, transcribed by gubernatrix ipsa.

And talking of old jokes, it has not been a good week for some of them…

“I say, I say, I say, what’s a Greek urn?”
“Not as much as last week, innit.” [laughter]

Yes it was all going off in Athens. The basic problem of course, is that Greece should never have been in the Euro to start with. Greece’s deficit was supposed to have been not more than 3% of GDP, but when they eventually got round to working it out properly, turned out to be 14%. The French and Germans though hadn’t noticed this as the Greeks cunningly sneaked in to the Euro by hiding their deficit figures inside a giant wooden horse.* [laughter]

For they are of course the founders of Western civilisation and one of the great cultures of world history, which you can tell from the fact that you can take early retirement in Greece if you are in a dangerous profession, and among the professions registered as dangerous is hairdresser. [laughter] Because that is true, if your next client is Medusa.** [laughter]

Other reported perks of the Greek economy are… “train drivers get €420 a month bonus for washing their hands” and brilliantly “in many of Greece’s government agencies, staff receive extra pay for handling photocopiers”. [laughter] So if you’re a hairdresser who uses a photocopier, you can retire the day after your 19th birthday. [laughter]

Anyway, the IMF have now shown their appreciation of the classical past and they’ve insisted that the Greek public sector with its hundreds and thousands of jobs, be reduced to a force of just 300 Spartans. *** [laughter] That joke was originally used by Aristophanes. **** [laughter] [aside: “Come on, Tim!”; laughter]

The Greeks were also responsible for democracy, geometry and the super-injunction, which was invented by Archimedes, to stop people finding out about his screw. ***** [laughter]

They also invented the Olympics,****** and a crude system of seat allocation, in which you prayed to the god of ticketing, LoeCod, only to find out he’d given them all to Pepsi, goddess of corporate entertainment. [laughter]

Although of course, one of Greece’s greatest ancient monuments, can actually be found in London, where he accompanies the Queen on state occasions. [laughter and applause]

There are of course the Elgin Marbles, which Greece would like back as they’d be something really heavy to throw at police cars. [laughter]

The terrible thing is that EU Ministers can’t say they weren’t warned. Allowing Greece to share a currency with Germany was like giving Kerry Katona a joint bank account with Bill Gates… [laughter]

“Oh, go on Bill, just one more shopping spree. Please?”
“Oh ok, Kerry, just as long as you promise to stop pointing out that I sound like Kermit the frog.” [laughter]
“I won’t mention it ever again.”
“Yaaaaaay!”. [laughter]

Both Greece and Habitat bankrupt in the same week – that’s a lot of crockery that could just end up being thrown away. [laughter]

But of course, they could also face their ultimate nightmare…

“We have no alternative but to shut down manufacture of both humous and taramasalata.”

[laughter] Double dip recession, Ladies and Gentlemen. [laughter and applause] Round of applause for Aristophanes again.

The austerity measures are opposed by 80% of the people, but not introducing them would bankrupt the country. There’s no telling how they think they can get out of this mess, although there is a rumour that the entire Greek government have been spotted off Hartlepool, in an enormous canoe. [laughter] For while one ancient civilisation is collapsing, another is rapidly becoming the only country still funding the debts of the west….

* Odysseus’s cunning and very successful plan to finally defeat Troy in the Trojan War is to hide soldiers inside a wooden horse, ostensibly left as a peace-making leaving present… The Trojan Horse

** Medusa – a mythical gorgon with snakes for hair and a gaze that turns those who look at her into stone…
Medusa head frieze of 2nd century A.D. from the architrave, Didyma, Hellenistic Temple of Apollo; Photograph by Don Keller, summer 1991. From the Perseus art and archaeology artifact collection.

*** 300 Spartans defended the pass at Thermopylae in 480BC, despite the inevitability of their death at the hands of the Persian invaders. Find out more about the movie-inspiring events…

**** Aristophanes doesn’t make this specific joke (as far as I can recall…), although he does have lots to say about bloated governments and civil servants who cream off the public purse (for example, the return of the envoys in Acharnians). This is a joke about how ancient jokes are still funny and nothing changes when it comes to politics…

***** A very clever piece of engineering to move water around. Archimedes’ Screw

****** in 776BC. The Ancient Olympics.

Now those are some seriously ancient jokes. But they do say the old ones are the best….