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Archaeology students found dad jokes from Ancient Rome


AI technology and archaeology have recently combined to create something remarkable. Let us set the stage.


SIMON: Grad students Alamanda O'Brien and Arnold Collier of Kaskaskia State University were on a dig on the site of the Roman Ridiculum Amphitheater last year when their small shovel struck an ancient papyrus scroll.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Arnold Collier) So we flicked off the dirt carefully.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Alamanda O'Brien) And began to unroll the scroll. We saw we could make out a phrase.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Arnold Collier) This phrase posed a question - did you hear the rumor about butter?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Alamanda O'Brien) Butter?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Arnold Collier) Well, I'm not going to spread it.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1 AND COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Arnold Collier and Alamanda O'Brien) I'm not going to spread it.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Arnold Collier) It was a jocus, a joke, a 44 B.C. Roman joke.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Alamanda O'Brien) A true inflection point for civilization.

SIMON: Excited students brought their find to their team leader, the archaeologist Melissa Blue of Chattahoochee State, to examine the scroll closely.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #3: (As Melissa Blue) It said compendium jocus at the top, almost like the title carved on the front of a temple.

SIMON: What the students had uncovered was the Liber - pat, pata - I can't pronounce it. "The Book Of Humor For Ancient Rome." Professor Blue explains...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #3: (As Melissa Blue) We've all heard about gladiators, but between the acts - and not to be too delicate about it - the stage had to be swept, reset for the next act. Crowds had to be distracted. That's when the comoedus, the comedians, would come on stage and get to work.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Arnold Collier) What did one nut say to the other nut in a game of tag?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Alamanda O'Brien) I don't know.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Arnold Collier) I'm going to cashew.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Alamanda O'Brien) Oh.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Arnold Collier, laughter).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Alamanda O'Brien) Here's an easy one for you, Steve. What did one plate say to the other? Dinner's on me. Get it? Dinner's on me.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #4: (As Martin Haste) I don't call these nuggets of wit jokes any more than you'd call the best lines of Joyce and Beckett or the books of Ruth or James jokes.

SIMON: Professor Martin Haste of River Clyde University in the U.K. has been studying the Liber pata whatever it is, and he has a convincing accent.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #4: (As Martin Haste) I consider them tokens of ancient wisdom. You see it in almost every line. Like, where does a sheep get his hair cut? The baa baa shop.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #5: (As Gregory Mosher) Mark Twain, Noel Coward, Second City...

SIMON: Gregory Mosher, the Tony Award-winning Broadway director of the plays of "Tennessee Williams" and "David Mamet," says the book of ancient absurdities, wisecracks and pater iocus - what the Romans call dad jokes - are the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of civilized wit.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #5: (As Gregory Mosher) ...Farce, parody, satire, Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis, Richard Pryor, horseplay, stand-up, sit-down, "Hamilton", "Waiting For Godot", "Wayne's World" - they all trace back to that scroll found below the Ridiculum Amphitheater. And as the Romans knew, Steve, comedy can be dangerous.

SIMON: Mr. Mosher refers to a moment in 44 B.C. when Emperor Julius Caesar arrived in the Roman Senate and told a few jokes to warm up a crowd of senators who were angry with Caesar over taxes. Professor Martin Haste explains.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #4: (As Martin Haste) And Caesar, you know, a very smooth showman. He begins by saying, what did the cucumber say to the pickle? A few senators start shouting, pucker up. And Caesar tells them no, the cucumber says, you mean a great dill to me.

SIMON: He says Senator Marcus Junius rose to shout, Caesar occidis, Caesar occidis.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #4: (As Martin Haste) Caesar kill, Caesar kill, meaning...

SIMON: Great joke, Caesar. You're killing them. You're killing them.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #4: (As Martin Haste) Right. Standard showbiz phrase. But then Cassius hears it and gets it twisted, and reaches for a knife. Then all the senators join in, even Brutus, and the next thing you know...

SIMON: Yeah, yeah, I saw the movie. A team of scholars notice that all the ancient canonical witticisms on the scroll seemed to be in the same handwriting in oxblood ink.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #6: (As McCartney Sherbrooke) So we lifted particles of DNA matter from the pages, and we found that we could trace all those thigh-slappers and rib-ticklers back to one person. And it's not B.J. Leiderman, who writes your theme music.

SIMON: McCartney Sherbrooke is a doctoral candidate at Kaskaskia State's Steve Harvey's School of Satiric Studies.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #6: (As McCartney Sherbrooke) It's an ancient person named Clownius Bozollius.

SIMON: That's quite a name.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #6: (As McCartney Sherbrooke) Well, think of how funny your name would have sounded in 44 B.C.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #7: (As Regis Ortiz) OK, so what we've done here, Steve, is use ACC, DML, IVR, PCI and SIP to create an AI Bozollius.

SIMON: Regis Ortiz is the CIO at Kaskaskia State.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #7: (As Regis Ortiz) Let me tell you, Steve, this AI tech, incredible. I could even make you sound like Nina Totenberg.

SIMON: You could make me sound like Nina Totenberg?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #8: (As Nina Totenberg) Fancy that. I guess I have a future in this business after all. And maybe a day off.

SIMON: Dr. Ortiz held up a small screen and introduced us to something - someone - you might say truly extraordinary.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #7: (As Regis Ortiz) Meet Clownius Bozollius. We've downloaded all his jokes and DNA matter to create an AI Clownius Bozollius just as he appeared in 44 B.C., you know, before anyone knew there was going to be a C.

SIMON: That's utterly amazing. That's extraordinary.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #7: (As Regis Ortiz) Just another day in the office here. Clownius Bozollius, would you like to ask something of our guest?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) A bear walks into a tavern...


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) ...And he says to the tavern owner - he says, give me a vinum - on the rocks. Guy says, sure, buddy, but why the big pause? Know what the bear says?


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) I'm not sure, the bear says. I guess I was just born with them. (Laughter).

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #7: (As Regis Ortiz) He's a stitch, isn't he, Steve? Now, would you like to interview Clownius Bozollius?

SIMON: Please, Mr. Bozollius...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) Oh, no, no, Clownius, please. My father was Mr. Bozollius.

SIMON: So were your jokes popular back then?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) Oh, yeah. I'd give off a really good one like, know why hummingbirds hum? They don't know the words.

SIMON: Oh, yeah.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) And like you, folks would laugh, and then they'd write them down on scrolls. And then they'd pass around these scrolls until it seemed like everyone in Roma saw my joke and liked it. We'd call that going papyrus.

SIMON: That's amazing. I mean, how satisfying that must have been.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) Hey, you want to sniff the flower here in my lapel?

SIMON: Well, I mean, you're on a screen. Can I really sniff it?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius) Oh, yeah. Yeah.


SIMON: Ooh, I can't believe I fell for that.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #9: (As Clownius Bozollius, laughter) Hey, listen, just because a guy is all artificial intelligence doesn't mean he can't pull off a squirting flower trick, right? Oh, hey, now, friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.


DEAN MARTIN: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.