Talking Cows & Dirty Sumerian Jokes (with Ryan Byrne)
History falls apart. Comedy reassembles.
A shepherd, his penis. A gardener, his hair.
That is perhaps the world’s oldest dick joke, carved on a tablet in the Fertile Crescent by some anonymous Sumerian wag—the Original King of Comedy!—eight millennia ago. It was told to me by Ryan Byrne, the antiquarian, scholar, and satirist, on today’s PREVAIL podcast. He came across the joke in his studies, first encountering it in the original Sumerian—but it’s not like anything was lost in translation.
Comedy, as Byrne points out, is relative. We make fun of what’s around us, and what’s around us is always changing. The funniest cracks, it seems to me, are inside jokes. In high school, we had Clone Day, where students dressed as other people at the school. One of my buddies went as our algebra teacher, and at one point went to the head of the class and delivered a spot-on impression. I have rarely laughed so hard in my life—but it wouldn’t be funny to you, because Mr. Growley wasn’t your algebra teacher.
“You had to be there,” someone will insist, when a joke they found riotously funny bombs. That’s what the Jester of Sumer might say, if we resurrected him and complained that his joke about the shepherd and the gardener wasn’t LMAO ROFL.
And yet comedy is malleable. It can be extremely specific, as with my friend aping Mr. Growley. But it can also connect people in ways nothing else can. In this, comedy has the ability to cross party, gender, racial, religious, and other lines. This makes it extremely powerful.
“When you do decide to make satire comedic, that’s a really deliberate and, I think, helpful way to encourage if not dialogue with conservatives or people across the aisle, to establish some good trust,” Byrne says. “There’s something about comedy that is non-confrontational, if you ease people into it. Even if it’s critical of your position, if it’s funny,” it can penetrate bubbles that other forms of communication can’t.
As one of the creative masterminds behind History Falls Apart, Byrne has been cranking out short satirical films that, like The Great Dictator in Nazi Germany, have been enjoyed behind enemy lines. His work is at once book-smart and crass—a hysterical mix of high culture and low, academic arcana and dick jokes.
This film came out shortly after Tucker Carlson’s weird, homoerotic special in which a guy appeared to plug in his junk in a Tesla charging station:
But the enterprise began two-plus years ago, when Byrne got the idea to present MAGA’s “New Civil War” as something from the distant past, presented in Ken Burns documentary format:
But this one is my favorite:
These days, Byrne is taking his satirical work to the next level. He’s teamed up with Devin’s Cow—the pseudonymous Twitter personality invented to lampoon the traitor Devin Nunes, who later sued her—to form a political action committee, COW PAC, that will attack the bad guys with comedy.
At first blush, this sounds like a joke, but remember: with one brilliant impression, Tina Fey did in Sarah Palin. Comedy is powerful—and their side ain’t funny.
“We want to create a whole different kind of conversation,” Byrne says. “We want to make political ads, we want to create original content and explainers and whatever the fucked up version of Schoolhouse Rock would look like if it were done by Rick and Morty….But they’re also going to be very serious, because we want to be targeting very specific races, and doing candidate endorsements, and doing issue advocacy in the states and races where we feel they’re most under threat.”
While the Federal Election Commission are sticklers for rules and regulations, satire is the Wild West. “What we realized is that the FEC really has no regulations with respect to satire or comedy in political advertising,” Byrne explains. “And, you know, most political ad agencies are too scared to touch it. And for all the good work Meidas and Lincoln Project and others are doing, there’s still things they can’t touch, because that’s their brand. Well, our brand is a talking cow.”
Political ads, it’s true, are all kind of the same. The opponent is presented as pure evil, usually accompanied by scary music and the worst possible picture, while the favored candidate is shown in perfect lighting, engaging avuncularly with some kids. There are voiceovers, statistics, arrows pointing up and down, desperate emotional appeals, non sequitur shots of AOC/Pelosi or MTG/Trump, depending on the angle. Sometimes these ads are Friday the 13th. Sometimes they are Patton. Dan Crenshaw’s ads are Mission: Impossible. But why can’t political ads be Airplane! or Borat?
“If we relate through dick jokes,” Byrne says, “where is it said that we can’t do ads for or against candidates at their crassest—if they’re right, and if they move the needle? We really want to innovate a genre that we don’t think exists right now.”
Oh, and I figured out the Sumerian joke. A shepherd, his penis. A gardener, his hair? That was the world’s first mental competency test, given to the possibly-senile King Sargon to make sure he wasn’t suffering from dementia.
(Eight thousand years is a long time to wait for a punch line.)
Is irony dead? Greg Olear talks to antiquarian, archeologist, and satirist Ryan Byrne, of History Falls Apart and Devin’s Cow’s COW PAC, about the state of comedy, Babylonic cuneiform, Sumerian dick jokes, Dr. Strangelove, Alanis Morrissette, how to lean in to extinction, and how comedy can save the day. Plus: a new school for chaos agents.
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Thanks to everyone for watching The Five 8. There will NOT be a new show tonight. LB and I will be back next week, with twice as much horribleness to rant about.
Photo credit: Ryan Byrne. The banner of the History Falls Apart Twitter page.