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Best of Summer: What makes the world’s first bar joke funny? No one knows.

Fri Jul 14 2023
Ancient HistorySumerian CivilizationHumorTranslationProverbsSumerian Tablets


The episode explores a 4,000-year-old Sumerian bar joke that has puzzled scholars. The joke involves a dog entering a tavern and saying, 'I can't see anything.' The translation and interpretation of the joke remain uncertain, but it provides insights into Sumerian civilization, humor, and the significance of proverbs. The episode also delves into the challenges of translating ancient texts and examines Sumerian tablets related to the dog proverb. Different interpretations of the proverb shed light on its meaning and highlight the importance of humor in human culture.


Ancient Humor

The ancient Sumerian bar joke demonstrates that humor has been an integral part of human culture for thousands of years.

Sumerian Civilization

The emergence of Sumerian civilization around 5000 BCE brought about significant advancements in agriculture, irrigation, and social structure.

Proverbs and Jokes

Proverbs and jokes from ancient civilizations often contained references to local politics, current events, and societal norms.

Translation Challenges

The translation of ancient texts can be challenging, leading to different interpretations and uncertainties in understanding their original meaning.

Sumerian Tablets

Sumerian tablets provide valuable insights into the daily lives, education, and cultural practices of the ancient Sumerians.

Interpretation of Proverbs

Different interpretations of the dog proverb highlight the complexity of understanding ancient proverbs and their underlying meanings.

Humor and Human Development

Studying the origins and evolution of humor can provide insights into human development and the role of laughter in society.


  1. The Ancient Sumerian Bar Joke
  2. Sumerian Civilization and Humor
  3. Interpretations and Translations
  4. Sumerian Tablets and the Dog Proverb
  5. Interpretations of the Dog Proverb

The Ancient Sumerian Bar Joke

00:01 - 08:58

  • A 4,000-year-old Sumerian bar joke has been puzzling scholars for decades.
  • The joke involves a dog entering a tavern and saying, 'I can't see anything.'
  • The translation of the joke is imprecise due to the nature of the Sumerian language.
  • Scholars have different interpretations of the punchline and its humor.
  • Despite the mystery, people continue to find the ancient joke amusing.

Sumerian Civilization and Humor

08:45 - 16:03

  • Sumer is often considered the first human civilization, emerging around 5000 BCE in Mesopotamia.
  • The agricultural revolution and large-scale irrigation techniques allowed for a surplus of food and the development of cities.
  • The Sumerian society had a social hierarchy with elites, a middle class, and a lower class of farm laborers and workers.
  • Jokes from ancient civilizations often included references to local politicians or current events.
  • Proverbs about dogs, donkeys, husbands, and other topics were common in ancient Mesopotamia.
  • Some proverbs contained innuendo related to sexuality or excrement.
  • The structure of the bar proverb follows a setup-punchline format similar to other jokes and proverbs.
  • The word for tavern in ancient Mesopotamia also referred to a place where sex trade took place, which changes the interpretation of the joke.

Interpretations and Translations

15:42 - 23:42

  • The interpretation of a joke changes depending on the word used.
  • The dog in the joke is portrayed as a horny dog.
  • There are multiple interpretations of the bar joke.
  • The translations of the proverb are unreliable and don't make sense.
  • There are two different versions of the text, both broken and not matching.
  • The hosts are on their way to Philadelphia to see the primary documents in real life.
  • The Penn Museum in Philly has a collection of Mesopotamian artifacts.
  • Dr. Philip Jones is an expert who shows them tablets with small impressions made by a stylus.
  • Most Sumerian tablets were written by juveniles as part of their training.

Sumerian Tablets and the Dog Proverb

23:16 - 30:37

  • Sumerian tablets were written by juveniles as class assignments.
  • The tablet room is closed to the public and contains an epic library of tablets organized in a higgly-piggly-dooie-decimal-like system.
  • Each skinny drawer of the file cabinet contains tablets dating back to 2900 BC.
  • The dog proverb tablet is small and fragmented, possibly an exam.
  • The Sumerian language had already died out by 1700 BC, only scribes continued to learn it.
  • There may be mistakes in the text due to translation issues.
  • The dog in the proverb refers to a guard dog with a brutal personality type.
  • The meaning of the proverb is still unclear.

Interpretations of the Dog Proverb

30:12 - 36:21

  • The dog in the proverb is more like the dog in Tom and Jerry cartoons, not Scooby-Doo.
  • There are different interpretations of what the dog opening the door represents.
  • One interpretation is that the dog opening the door reveals couples engaging in illicit activities.
  • Another interpretation is that letting the guard dog inside negates his purpose of guarding, as he opens the door for everyone to see inside.
  • Humor is an important aspect of proverbs and jokes, and understanding their origins can help us understand human development.