It’s a Gas

The phrase “it’s a gas” can be used to denote that an activity is a lot of fun. The origins of the phrase aren’t known, unfortunately, but one thing is for sure — it’s not a reference to “passing gas” which, while often is a relief for the passer, isn’t all that much fun for the rest of those in the immediate vicinity. Flatulence just isn’t “a gas,” at least not in that sense.

But it can be funny. There’s even a genre of humor colloquially referred to as “fart jokes” — one which third graders magically become well-versed in seemingly overnight. WIkipedia even has an entry devoted to “flatulence humor,” which includes this fantastic list of ways to assign blame for passing gas — you know, like “whoever smelt it dealt it.” Yes, the jokes are crude, and yes, they can be kind of gross. Fart jokes certainly aren’t the pinnacle of sophisticated comedy — anything but. Some may even wonder how humorists created such a whole class of jokes which note that “beans, beans, are good for your heart” (or, alternatively, are “the musical fruit”); one would think that in the thousands of years of humankind, we’d not have devolved so much.

That’s because we didn’t devolve into fart jokes. It’s where we started off.

In the summer of 2008, a team of researchers led by Dr. Paul McDonald, a senior lecturer of creating writing at the University of Wolverhampton, set off to find the world’s first joke. As Reuters reported, the oldest joke they could find was told in ancient Sumer (now southern Iraq) nearly 4,000 years ago. The joke came in the form of a Sumerian proverb and it was a real gas — literally: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young girl did not fart in her husband’s lap.”


The joke loses something in translation. Or I guess you had to be there. Or both. Regardless, it’s about farts, demonstrating that for millennia, humans have found the passing of gas to be among the ne plus ultra of humor.

Okay, maybe not. Either way, let’s not judge the ancient Sumerians by their humor or choice of topics. As io9 warns, we don’t know “what people are going to make of what we considered comedy in the year 5,500,” and probably don’t want to know, either. After all, we can be pretty crude, too.

Bonus Fact: The first major studio U.S. film to have a fart joke? That “honor” goes to the 1974 Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. Studio executives asked Brooks to remove the well-known scene featuring cowboys passing gas (watch it here, if you’d like), but he stood his ground, to the delight of audiences. Nevertheless, the gas-passing was often edited out or dubbed over in early TV broadcasts of the movie.

From the ArchivesThe Musical Snack: It’s about … well, you can probably guess.

Not relatedAwesomeClaus, my gift site. Flatulence-free.