[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]

Online Introduction to

Joe Miller's Jest Book,

more properly called

Mark Lemon's The Jest Book

Here are over seventeen hundred jokes from the 1800's.  

Compiled by Mark Lemon, the first editor of Punch magazine about 1864, his versiion,The Jest Book, was first published in 1864 and reprinted several times. Then, as was the habit, as proof of its success and proof of the long history of plagiarism, the book was illegally and immorally reprinted by American publishing companies who would change only the title.

Although Mark Lemon's original book was called, The Jest Book, one of its stolen offspring is this text, called Joe Miller's Jest book. It is an exact reproduction, except for the name, and the occasional Americanized spelling of some of the words. The sad part is that you would never know or credit Mr. Lemon with it, because in the author's preface he only signs his name with the initials “M. L.” If a reader hadn't been curious enough to do some major research in the days before the internet, the author would have remained essentially nameless. That's kind of depressing, I think.

The original Joe Miller was a real person: an actor who lived in the previous century. A friend of his, John Mottley apparently, first created Joe Miller's Jest Book. It went through several editions and had multiple imitators, all of them using his name. Within 40 years thousands of jokes had been added to the original two hundred or so. Mark Lemon used many of them in his book, and added some more as well.

I found my Joe Miller's Jest Book in a giveaway stack at a used book store in Vermont. Was I ever thrilled! Then I found Mark Lemon's Jest Book and almost bought it until I opened the page and read the preface. . . “Hey, I have read this before!”. I sputtered aloud midst the dusty tomes, thus discovering my copy was stolen complete from the original author. I list both titles so nobody else will be confused and think the Victorians were funny enough to produce TWO Joke Books in 50 years. They were, but finding the evidence takes a while.

What really excited me about finding this book, was that it was the basis for the only joke Queed ever told in his life, so I could link it to that book as well.

About half of the jokes are funny today. Not a bad percentage. Humor is so dependent on the local culture of the period that some of the puns you just won't understand because you don't know the customs, headlines, prejudices and scandals of the time. But the half that are funny will probably be just as funny in another 200 years, maybe longer.

A helpful habit of that time period was to put the punch line in italics. Why it was thought to be necessary back then, I can't tell you. But it sure is helpful now.

Remember as you go, that this was much funnier a 150 years ago when you knew all the famous names Mr. Lemon's jokesters dropped so often throughout the pages. What Lord Byron said at a dinner party, what Dean Swift or Sheridan or Jerrold tossed off in the course of a chat, etc. Whether the famous really said these remarks is another question. See Poggio's Facetiae, the early Renaissance equivalent of a Jest Book, for a bon mot of Dante or Lorenzo d'Medici and other stars of the times. The fashion of immortalizing your country's heroes wisdom and wit has never gone out of style.

In times past, being a master of intellect with a sense of humor was to be prized! No mention of how well they could pitch or throw a curve ball anywhere. Athletes did become famous, though. A winner at the Olympics was a major hometown hero in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago, but the literary lights also shone just as brightly in Antiquity as well.

It is worth noting that more people know the name of Dante and Byron than they do of any noted Olympic athlete before this century. Brains are (is?) more honored than Brawn. . . eventually. And if somebody was funny and smart, a lot of people appreciated it, as you will when you read: Joe Miller's Jest Book by the original Joe Miller.

Here's grinning at you,


PS. UH-OH. Before Mark Lemon's book, in 1815 and 1844, there was an earlier book called Joe Miller's Jest Book that I am checking on to see how deep this tangle of stolen works goes. . . Stay tuned. Although the Preface by Mark Lemon discusses the existence of Joe Miller, and he used some of those jokes, many are newly added by him.

Title Pages & Preface

[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]