The cream of the jest

This post was originally published during my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, but Samhain redid their blog and the post was no longer available so I’m reposting it here.

There’s a scene in the book where my heroine, Phoebe, is late for a dinner appointment:

Mr. Gilchrist and another man were seated close to the door, Mr. Gilchrist recounting an amusing anecdote with an air of desperation. He chuckled nervously at the funny parts to fill the silence left by his companion, who was—Phoebe’s heart sank—checking his watch.[…]”And the grocer’s lady said to the cheesemonger’s wife, ‘Nothing goes after cheese,'” Phoebe finished for Mr. Gilchrist. “I’m so sorry I’m late.”

When I was writing this scene, I knew I wanted Phoebe to deliver the punchline of Mr. Gilchrist’s joke, and I wanted the punchline to be funny in and of itself (although not necessarily the same way it would be funny in the context of the whole joke). I also wanted it to provide atmosphere, i.e. convey a genre and era of joke that would add to the Regency vibe of my book. To do that, I looked at period “jest-books.”

One of the most entertaining that I found was The Treasury of Wit from 1786, ed. H. Bennet, M.A. The preface describes it as “A COMPLETE selection of Apophthegms and Jests, arranged, for the first time, in a new and methodical manner; and calculated to please the man of fashion, and the man of science, as well as the publick in general.”

The compiler has a lot of opinions!

“Jest Books have swarmed; but very poor, and a fit amusement for the mere vulgar. The name of some eminent wit is always put on the title page, as Chesterfield’s Jests, Garrick’s Jests, &c. &c. though, on looking into the pamphlets, only two or three of as many hundreds are imputed to the name on the title page. This is a gross absurdity, and unknown to other countries[…]But through twenty or more of these jest books has the editor waded, and has here given the cream of the jest.[…]The rest are most miserable; and raise no laughter, save of the Sardonic kind.”

Honestly, looking through tThe Treasury of Wit from the point of view of finding jokes I might actually want to tell, I couldn’t help wondering if all the really funny jokes were too “miserable” or “vulgar” for H. Bennet. (I also discovered that a lot of jokes in the eighteenth century were very long. I didn’t bother to read most of those so I can’t tell you much about them.)

I was tempted to conclude, “Wow, ideas of what’s funny do really change over time.”

But while certain forms of humor can seem incredibly dated or just plain puzzling in later decades/centuries, I have to remember that I wouldn’t, myself, necessarily find every joke book published today to be either very funny or in any way representative of “modern humor.” Plus, joke books are their own genre with their own audience and record only one facet of a society’s humor output. I’m left wondering, how much is a shift in styles of humor over time, and how much is simply a matter of personal taste?

Here, for your amusement and bemusement, are ten of my favorite jokes from H. Bennet’s Treasury of Wit:

[This is the full cheesemonger joke. The version I used, which believe it or not I found in a different book with identical wording in every other respect, right down to “the punctilios of precedence,” omits the tobacconist’s lady.]

Three ladies meeting at a visit, a grocer’s wife, a cheesemonger’s, and a tobacconist’s, who perhaps stood more upon the punctilios of precedence than some of their betters would have done at the court end of the town: when they had risen up and taken their leaves, the cheesemonger’s wife was going out of the room first; upon which the grocer’s lady, pulling her back by the tail of her gown, and stepping before her, “No, madam,” says she, “nothing comes after cheese.” I beg your pardon, madam, replies the cheesemonger’s wife, putting the tobacconist’s lady back, who was also stepping before her, after cheese comes tobacco.


[Doctors seem to be a popular target, at least of H. Bennet. This one bore the title “TWO OF A TRADE.” A sexton is the church official in charge of burying the dead.]

A physician being summoned to a vestry, to reprimand the sexton for drunkenness, dwelt so long on the sexton’s misconduct, that the latter indignantly replied, “Sir! I was in hopes you would have treated my failings with more gentleness, or that you would have been the last man alive to appear against me, as I have covered so many blunders of yours!”


In Charles the Second’s time, the ladies that were fond of hawking and hunting got into a fashion of wearing breeches. Some such ladies being one day at dinner at Sir Edward Lewknor’s, there was one Mr. Zephory, a precise clergyman, present. Discourse rising of fashions, he fell upon this, and railed against it. Robert Heighem, a jovial blade, being there, he undertook to vindicate the ladies; “For,” said he, “if a horse throws them, or by any mischance they get a fall, had you not rather see them in their breeches than naked?” Zephory, in a paroxysm of rage and zeal, cried, 0, no, by no means. In faith, said Heighem, I agree with you in that, so let us be friends.


One came to visit a gentleman in the country, and finding him eating some cherries with his spectacles on, having asked his reason for it, he answered, The truth is I bade my man bring me Kentish cherries, and the knave hath brought me these little ones which you see; therefore I eat them with my spectacles on to make them look bigger.


A gentleman, who was a staunch Whig, disputing with a Jacobite, said, He had two good reasons for being again the interest of the Pretender:– What are those? said the other. The first, replied he, is, that he is an impostor, not really King James’s son.–Why, that, said the Tory, would be a good reason, if it could be proved; and pray, Sir, what is your other? Why, said the Whig, that he is King James’s son.


A profligate young nobleman, being in company with some sober people, desired leave to toast the devil. The gentleman who sat next to him, said, He had no objection to any of his lordship’s friends.


Being asked, after his condemnation, “If he had changed his mind?” [Sir Thomas More] said, Yea; for I thought to have been shaven; but now, seeing I shall die so shortly, I will let my beard grow.


A young fellow came to offer himself to the Play-house, whose talent lay in comedy; and having given a specimen of his capacity to Mr Quin, he asked, “If he had ever played any parts in comedy?” The former answered, “Yes; he had played Abel in the Alchymist.” I am rather of opinion you played Cain, says Quin, for I am certain you murdered Abel.


A countryman sowing his ground, two smart fellows riding that way, one of them called to him, with an insolent air; “Well, honest fellow,” said he, “it is your business to sow, but we reap the fruits of your labour.” To which the countryman replied, It is very likely you may, for I am sowing hemp.

[Hemp, of course, is used to make rope, the implication being that these “smart fellows” will end on the gallows.]


A certain clergyman in the West of England, being at the point of death, a neighbouring brother, who had some interest with his patron, applied to him for the next presentation; upon which the former, who soon after recovered, upbraided him with the breach of friendship, and said, He wanted his death. No, no, Doctor, says the other, you quite mistake, it was your living 1 wanted.


And one bonus anecdote, which…I don’t know. I’m tempted to say, “It isn’t really a joke,” and yet I find it very funny:

A young gentleman, having consumed his fortune, plotted this way of repairing it. He had a god-mother, a widow of middle years, yet comely enough, and extremely rich. To her he comes, and tells her, he had a marriage in view that might advance him for ever. She desired to know the party; but in that he craved pardon for a while: yet, says he, the party is very well known to you; and all I beg of you is, to throw no hindrance in the way, when it comes to be published in church. She promised this most willingly: but guess her surprize, next Sunday, when she heard her own name given out. She burst into rage, but recollecting her promise, would not break it: and it proved a very happy match for both.


The ending is unexpected, right?

Tell me a favorite joke of yours, or tell me which of these jokes you find the funniest/least funny!

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