Can jokes win a hostile room, a hopeless argument, or even an election? You bet they can, according to Cicero, and he knew what he was talking about. One of Rome’s greatest politicians, speakers, and lawyers, Cicero was also reputedly one of antiquity’s funniest people. After he was elected commander-in-chief and head of state, his enemies even started calling him “the stand-up Consul.” How to Tell a Joke provides a lively new translation of Cicero’s essential writing on humor alongside that of the later Roman orator and educator Quintilian. The result is a timeless practical guide to how a well-timed joke can win over any audience.
As powerful as jokes can be, they are also hugely risky. The line between a witty joke and an offensive one isn’t always clear. Cross it and you’ll look like a clown, or worse. Here, Cicero and Quintilian explore every aspect of telling jokes—while avoiding costly mistakes. Presenting the sections on humor in Cicero’s On the Ideal Orator and Quintilian’s The Education of the Orator, complete with an enlightening introduction and the original Latin on facing pages, How to Tell a Joke examines the risks and rewards of humor and analyzes basic types that readers can use to write their own jokes.
Filled with insight, wit, and examples, including more than a few lawyer jokes, How to Tell a Joke will appeal to anyone interested in humor or the art of public speaking.
Michael Fontaine is professor of classics at Cornell University. His books include How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing (Princeton) and The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy.
"Elegant. . . . Fontaine calls Cicero’s ‘On the Ideal Orator’ a ‘masterpiece’ and Quintilian’s ‘The Education of the Orator’ ‘a master textbook on public speaking.’ Neither is an understatement."—Joseph Epstein, Wall Street Journal
"Michael Fontaine’s lively new translation of Cicero’s ancient text on humor, How to Tell a Joke, amuses as well as instructs."—Linda B. Glaser, Cornell Chronicle
"[How to Tell a Joke] will make you happier, it will make you better read, and, I’m pretty confident, it will make you laugh."—Ben Potter, Classical Wisdom
"Wonderful translations. . . . [Fontaine’s] translations make the Latin very accessible to the modern reader who might not have any skill in translation at all. This modern translation also makes the language of Cicero and Quintilian come alive to the reader. . . .it gives you a glimpse of the Roman sense of humour, barbs, quips and the workings of extraordinary jurists in a court playing to a captive audience. . . . [A] wonderful book."—Dr. LF Ivings, Journal of Classics Teaching
“Though I had some quibbles with the Latin translation, largely because I don't read Latin, I agreed with the two-millennium-old rules on humor. Or maybe it's 'two millennia.' I should probably learn some Latin.”—Joel Stein, humorist and author of In Defense of Elitism
“This book is a delight! Humor can be one of the hardest things to translate, but How to Tell a Joke makes the jokes and insights of two of antiquity’s finest writers on humor accessible to a modern audience. Bravo!”—Julia D. Hejduk, Baylor University
“Providing highly readable, lively, and fresh translations of Cicero and Quintilian’s classic writings on humor, How to Tell a Joke also features a crisp introduction that shows the relevance of their ideas for appreciating humor in the twenty-first century.”—Luca Grillo, University of Notre Dame