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Four-Thousand Years After Their Inception, ‘Guy Walks into a Bar’ Jokes Still Slap

The Ancient Sumerians first cackled at them, and we haven’t stopped laughing at them since

Last weekend, I was watching HBO’s new documentary about the recently departed comedian Bob Einstein, who was best known as Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Super Bob Einstein Movie was a touching tribute, and perhaps the best part was that it was intercut with Einstein telling some of his favorite jokes, much like he would do on talk shows, podcasts and the like. The funniest was a good, old fashioned “guy walks into a bar” joke:

“Guy walks into a bar with a dog. Bartender says, ‘Get that dog out of here!’ and the guy says, ‘No, my dog can talk.’ Bartender says, ‘If your dog talks, I’ll give you $500. If your dog doesn’t talk, I throw you two through a window.’ Guy says, ‘You’re on,’ and turns to his dog: ‘Fido, what do you call the top of a building?’ Dog goes, ‘Roof!’ Guy says, ‘Fido, what do you call the top of your mouth?’ Dog goes, ‘Roof!’ Guy says, ‘Fido, who’s the greatest baseball player of all time?’ Dog says, ‘Roof!’ Bartender then picks the two of them up and throws them through a window. The dog shakes it off, looks to his owner and says, ‘You think I should have said DiMaggio?’”

It’s amazing to me that jokes in this format can still make me laugh. I’ve found “knock-knock” jokes annoying since I was about eight years old, but a well-crafted “guy walks into a bar” joke continues to get me going, even if the joke is several decades old. And so, after watching the documentary, I decided to go looking online for more of them and I found this gem:

“A man walks into a bar and, to his amazement, he finds a tiny person playing a tiny piano. Stunned, the man asked the bartender where he got this amazing person, and the bartender says that inside the closet, there’s a genie that will grant him a single wish. The man dashes into the closet and, as the bartender said, there is a genie inside. Without hesitation the man wishes for a million bucks, but instead, one million ducks instantly appear. Infuriated, the man storms to the bartender and screams, ‘I think your genie is hard of hearing, I asked for a million bucks, but instead I got a million ducks!’ The bartender shakes his head and replies, ‘Of course he’s hard of hearing. Do you really think I asked for a 12-inch pianist?’”

In the midst of my digging, I also found out that this kind of joke is far older than I ever could have thought — it dates back at least to the ancient Sumerians, some 4,000 years ago. As author Mark Forsyth writes in A Short History of Drunkenness, “Sumerians liked jokes. They made lists of them, and some are still recognizably funny, or sort of funny, today. [Though] sometimes, lines have survived that are clearly jokes, but which we can no longer get. For example, ‘A dog walked into a tavern and said, ‘I can’t see a thing. I’ll open this one.’’ Why that’s funny has been lost in a mist of 4,000 years. It is, nonetheless, the very earliest example of the animal-walks-into-a-bar joke.”

An animal walking into a bar is, of course, just a simple variation of a guy walking into a bar, and it’s a good illustration of how the format can be restructured for more possibilities. Food walking into a bar is also a popular topic, even if they usually fall firmly into lame, “dad joke” territory: 

“A hamburger walked into a bar and the bartender said, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t serve food here.’”

Since ancient Sumer, “guy walks into a bar” jokes have continued on, adapting to the times along the way. While the guy is already in the bar in the following example, here’s one from ancient Rome that also makes a bit of use of Henny Youngman-style “take my wife” humor, casting a man’s wife as the bane of his existence:

“A certain person sitting beside a tipsy man drinking in a tavern, said, ‘Your wife is dead.’ Hearing that, he said to the inn-keeper, ‘Therefore, waiter, mix some dark wine.’”

And here’s one from 1739, from the English joke book Joe Miller’s Jests. To be honest, I don’t really get it and it’s hard to tell who is saying what, but it’s clearly in the “guy walks into a bar” style: 

“Two gentlemen coming into a tavern, one of them called for a bottle of claret. ‘Why, do you love claret?’ said the other ‘For my part, I’ll see it burnt before I drink a drop.’”

The style of humor also became popular in America. Here’s one from 1879 about a con man tricking a bartender into giving him a free drink. Again, I don’t necessarily find it funny, but it must have been a riot back then, as it was published in newspapers all over the country:

“A sharp, thirsty man now walks into a bar-room, and asks if he can ‘put up’ his silk umbrella for a drink. The bartender acquiesces, the chap gets a drink, raises his umbrella and walks out. That’s a dry game.”

As famed etymologist Barry Popik writes, “Bar jokes have existed probably as long as bars have existed. In the 1950s, the jokes began with animals (such as a dog or a kangaroo) coming into a bar and asking for a drink. By the 1970s, the ‘walks into a bar’ jokes were told by almost every comedian.” One of the most notable of these comedians was Buddy Hackett, who would often show up on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with a laundry list of jokes, many of which were in the “guy walks into a bar” fashion. The best were more visual than not, but here’s a good one he told to Caeson in 1977:

“A drunk guy walks into a bar and says, ‘I’ll buy everyone a drink!’ After everyone drinks, the bartender says, ‘That will be $63.15,’ and the drunk guy says, ‘I don’t have any money.’ So the bartender takes the guy outside and punches him in the stomach. A few minutes later, the drunk guy comes back in and says, ‘I’ll buy everyone a drink!’ Then he points to the bartender and says, ‘Except for you. When you drink, you get nasty.’”

What exactly makes this kind of joke so timeless? Mike Haskins, co-author of Man Walks into a Bar: Over 6,000 of the Most Hilarious Jokes, Funniest Insults and Gut-Busting One-Liners, tells me, “The ‘man walks into a bar’ joke format is one of the most fertile starting points for gags. The format sets a scene up and provides a character as well as a bit of momentum going into the action. There’s a guy! And this guy is walking into a bar! What on Earth is going to happen?! The format has become so common that there are endless variations, and there are likely to be ‘man walks into a bar’ jokes for as long as men walk into bars!”

And with that, I leave you with one more joke for the road straight from Haskins’ book, with apologies in advance for ruining the punchline:

“A man walks into a bar with a lump of tarmac under his arm. ‘What would you like?’ asks the bartender. The man replies, ‘A pint of beer and one for the road.’”