Every culture in recorded history has had its preferred forms of humor relating to bodily functions, but none have been more reliable in stirring a reaction than fart jokes. In fact, according to British academic and poet Paul MacDonald, the oldest joke in recorded history – which dates back to the Sumerians in 1900 BC – was a fart joke: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
Fart jokes have also found their way into some of the classics of Western literature. One of the most well-known appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas and Absalom are vying for the same girl, and Nicholas decides to humiliate his rival. So he waits at the window for Absalom to beckon the girl. And just when he does, Nicholas’ rear protrudes to “let fly a fart with a noise as great as a clap of thunder, so that Absalom was almost overcome by the force of it.”
Even the great Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare, resorted to a flatulence pun in his play The Comedy of Errors, where Dromio of Ephesus declares, “A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.”
The philosophy of fart jokes
Clearly, as these examples show, flatulence humor is timeless. But why are farts universally funny?
We might begin by asking what makes anything funny. Historically, there have been three major philosophical theories about laughter.
The superiority theory says that we laugh when we feel “sudden glory,” as Thomas Hobbes put it – a sudden sense of superiority over a person, especially someone to whom we ordinarily feel inferior. Cases of slapstick humor, such as the pie-in-the-face or someone slipping on a banana peel, fall into this category.
Kant and Schopenhauer argued on behalf of the incongruity theory, which says we laugh at the juxtaposition of things that don’t ordinarily go together, such as a talking dog or a bearded woman.
And relief theorists like Spencer and Freud maintain that laughter is how we relieve nervous tension regarding subjects or situations that are socially taboo or inappropriate. This explains the popular appeal of jokes based on sex, ethnicity and religion.
But must we regard these theories as mutually exclusive? I suspect they are compatible explanations for different contexts of humor.
Philosopher John Morreall defends a theory that invites such a view. Morreall proposes that the common core to anything that prompts laughter is a “pleasant psychological shift.” If we apply this theory to flatulence, it becomes clear why farts are universally funny. It’s because they are capable of producing this effect in all of the ways identified by the three theories of humor.
This account of the universality of flatulence humor is, of course, a matter of debate. But one thing is beyond dispute: farts are funny. They always have been. And, it appears, they always will be.