Biography of the Father of Modern Humor Joseph Miller Part 1

About the father of modern humor Joseph Miller, biography of an illiterate English actor who wrote Joe Miller's Jests, the most influential joke or comedy book ever.

JOSEPH MILLER (1684-1738). Father of modern humor.

On an evening in October, 1943, 3 professional comedians--Harry Hershfield, Joe Laurie, Jr., Ed Ford--gave a lavish New York dinner party in honor of a certain Mr. Joe Miller.

And about time. Almost all modern jokes are derived from a classic book, published over 2 centuries ago, bearing Joe Miller's name. As the late, great comedian Fred Allen once remarked: "Where would we all be without him?"

Josias or Joseph Miller was born in London just 68 years after William Shakespeare's death. Miller grew to maturity in Queen Anne's London, where Dr. Johnson, Sir Richard Steele, David Garrick also reigned. Miller decided to emulate Garrick and become an actor. At the age of 25, he appeared in his 1st play in Drury Lane. Later, he performed as the 1st Gravedigger in Hamlet, Trinculo in The Tempest, Marplot in The Busie Body, the latter by lady playwright Mrs. Susannah Centlivre.

Uneducated, formally or otherwise, Joe Miller was an illiterate. Unable either to read or write, Miller married his wife for only one reason--she was able to read his parts to him.

Admittedly his acting was undistinguished if not downright pedestrian, but Joe Miller was said to have had another forte: employing the double entendre, the wisecrack, and the pun to perfection. He was a tavern fly, always in debt, and most of his contemporaries never quite appreciated his one deformity--an overdeveloped funnybone. On the other hand, some sources contradict the contemporary picture of Joe Miller as a comic. They state that, like Dorothy Parker, Miller was credited with everyone else's wit. According to one historian, Joe Miller "was so exceptionally grave and taciturn that when any joke was related, his friends would father it on him."

He died August 16, 1738, leaving his wife and his children in complete poverty. In fact, he willed them only one thing--his friends. After Miller's demise, these friends attempted to raise some money for his family. They appointed one of their number, John Mottley, to collect all the stray jokes that had been variously foisted on, or originated by, Miller and have them published in a book, the proceeds to go to Mrs. Miller.

Mottley, son of a favorite of King James II, was a gambler who had resigned his job with the Government Excise Office because of unfortunate speculations. Later, during the years he caroused with Joe Miller, young Mottley had written several plays that reached the public, among them Imperial Captive and The Widow Bewitched. A month after Miller's death, Mottley began to collect Joe Miller's jokes.

The book that resulted was entitled: Joe Miller's Jests: or, The Wits Vade-Mecum, being a collection of the most brilliant jests, the polite repartees, the most elegant bons mots, the most pleasant short stories in the English language. First carefully collected in the company, and many of the facetious gentleman whose name they bear.

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