Smith (Naked at Lunch) takes an immersive and irreverent dip into ancient Greece to uncover the origins of transgressive humor. Mixing history, literary criticism, and dirty jokes, Smith pays tribute to a slew of forgotten Greek writers: the work of one humorist, Aristophanes, was preserved by the Greek elites and is still well known. Ariphrades, meanwhile, was cut out of the conversation because his plays were thought to be crude, full of low humor, and critical of the aristocracy (though they were quite popular in their day). Smith connects the ancients’ sense of humor to that of contemporary Greece (which he keenly observes on his many travels to Athens) and opines on humor’s essential utility in modern life: “If democracy needs a sense of humor, if radical ideas need to be presented in a way that eases them into our consciousness, why are so many people so quick to denounce comedians and squash uncomfortable conversations?” No matter how antiquity-specific Smith gets, he always keeps in mind the importance of pushing against the status quo and preserving democratic values. This erudite but refreshingly nonacademic work will feed the intellect as well as tickle the funny bone. Agent: Mary Evans, Mary Evans Inc. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"The most sophisticated book you’ll read about writers insulting people they hate... If there were mean girls living in Ancient Greece, I have no doubt Mark would have written a brilliant analysis of the shade they threw at each other and their historical impact." ―Al Madrigal, Comedian, Actor, former Daily Show Correspondent, and co-founder of the All Things Comedy podcast network
"Rude Talk in Athens is as political and punk, as chaotic and exuberant, as the city itself. Riotous and fun, Mark Haskell Smith's book really made me feel like being in Athens!" ―Dr. Emma Southon, author of A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome
"Smith takes an immersive and irreverent dip into ancient Greece to uncover the origins of transgressive humor. Mixing history, literary criticism, and dirty jokes, Smith pays tribute to a slew of forgotten Greek writers... This erudite but refreshingly nonacademic work will feed the intellect as well as tickle the funny bone." ―Publishers Weekly
"Entertaining and informed, Rude Talk in Athens is a dispatch from Greece with much to discuss." ―Foreword Reviews
Historical recovery of an Athenian playwright who scandalized his society.
Novelist, screenwriter, and comedy writer Smith takes the now-forgotten playwright Ariphrades as the central character in his breezy, bawdy riff on fifth-century Greece, contemporary Greek life, the significance of art, his own development as a writer, women’s equality, wine, conviviality, pleasure, and sex. Smith’s interest in the obscure playwright was piqued when he came upon this quotation in Courtesans and Fishcakes, British historian James Davidson’s 1998 book about classical Athens: “At some point in the last quarter of the fifth century a man called Ariphrades had managed to acquire notoriety as a practitioner of cunnilingus.” In a culture where Dionysian festivals featured drunken parades of men “carrying large cocks and shouting obscenities as they cavorted through town,” Ariphrades’ reputation seemed curious, to say the least; consequently, Smith set out to find out what was behind it. Aristophanes—“the big swinging cock of Athenian comedy”—regularly took aim at Ariphrades in his satirical plays, which themselves were “colorful, loud, and very rude.” It may be, Smith thinks, that performing cunnilingus offended men because the act would be seen “as submitting to women” and therefore a betrayal of Athenian patriarchy. Or maybe Ariphrades had become too much of a rival. Smith became curious, too, about the deletion of Ariphrades from literary history: Not even a fragment of his work remains. “He was eradicated,” writes Smith. “To me, that’s a signal that he was important in some way we don’t understand.” Through research and interviews with experts, the author concludes that “the transgressive challenging of cultural and societal norms through sexuality, might be the only legacy Ariphrades leaves us.” He skewered “the aristocracy, the ruling class, the status quo,” and he seemed to have no need for convention. "We need to cultivate enthusiasms like his,” Smith claims. “We need more people to go down on each other.”
A racy, raunchy, entertaining reimagining of ancient Greece.