‘Rude Talk in Athens’ is the latest non-fiction title by author Mark Haskell Smith that is creating waves (of laughter) this season.
The book provides a very funny look at the feuding comic playwrights of ancient Athens and an exploration of how some writers gain notoriety, remembered for thousands of years, while others do not.
“Rude Talk in Athens is brave, brilliant, and incredibly funny. There are loads of very specific characters, including Mark himself. It’s the Mark Haskell Smith version of hanging out with Stanley Tucci and Anthony Bourdain, but in present day and ancient Greece. I agree with everything he says about comedy and have never read anything like it.”
―Barry Sonnenfeld, Film Director and author of Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother: Memoirs of a Neurotic Filmmaker
In ancient Athens, thousands would attend theatre festivals that turned writing into a fierce battle for fame, money, and laughably large trophies.
While the tragedies earned artistic respect, it was the comedies—the raunchy jokes, vulgar innuendo, outrageous invention, and barbed political commentary—that captured the imagination of the city.
The writers of these comedic plays feuded openly, insulting one another from the stage, each production more inventive and outlandish than the last.
Of these writers, only the work of Aristophanes has survived and it’s only through his plays that we know about his peers: Cratinus, the great lush; Eupolis, the copycat; and Ariphrades, the sexual deviant.
This period may have been the golden age of Democracy, but for comic playwrights, it was the age of Rude Talk.
Fast forward to 2019, whilst watching a production of an Aristophanes play and seeing the audience laugh uproariously at every joke, Mark Haskell Smith began to wonder: What does it tell us about society and humanity that these ancient punchlines still land? When insults and jokes made thousands of years ago continue to be both offensive and still make us laugh?
So, “what are some such examples of insults and jokes made thousands of years ago continue to be both offensive and still make us laugh?’ one may be tempted to ask.
“Ah! There’s so much that is relevant in Aristophanes’ plays!” Mark answers. “Not just the raunchy, scatological humour—the fart jokes and sexual innuendo—but the ridicule of the powerful, the pretentious, and corrupt. Especially in politics and the military, but also in philosophy and education.”
“One of my favourite jokes is in ‘Clouds’ where he mocks philosophers and intellectuals. As the debt-ridden main character goes to Socrates’ Thinkery to learn how to talk his way out of his debts.
“There he encounters men with their faces pressed to the ground and their naked butts pointing to the sky.
“They are, he is told, studying things below the earth while independently studying astronomy with their butt holes. Which is a clever way for Aristophanes to say they’ve got their heads up their a**es.
“Later, in the same play, two characters, “Right Argument” and “Wrong Argument” debate the sudden popularity of frivolous lawsuits and litigation in Athens. As Right Argument says, “New ideas are all the rage” [He gestures to the audience] “thanks to these morons here.
“In what could be a ripped from today’s discussion of “fake news” and “alternative facts” in ‘Knights’ he takes the very Trump-like demagogue Cleon to task, in a shameless political battle between Cleon and a Sausage-Seller for control of the city.
“And in ‘Women of the Assembly,’” Mark continues, “after women get control of Athens, they pass a law requiring handsome young men to sexually service older and unattractive women.
“The play pokes fun at gender norms and the roles women play in society (although gender roles were very different at the time, toxic masculinity hasn’t changed much).
“The young men worry who will make their breakfast and a character replies that it shouldn’t be a problem, “you will simply have to find a way to keep on [working] while you eat your breakfast.”
“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, and former Daily Show Correspondent
Through conversations with historians, politicians, and other writers, the always witty and effusive Smith embarks on a personal mission (bordering on obsession) exploring the life of one of these unknown writers, and how comedy challenged the patriarchy, the military, and the powers that be, both then and now.
A comic writer himself and author of many books and screenplays, in ‘Rude Talk in Athens’ Smith also looks back at his own career, his love for the uniquely dynamic city of Athens, and what it means for a writer to leave a legacy.
“Mark Haskell Smith is a writer whose books I am always grateful to have read.”
―Viet Thanh Nguyen
“I started working on this book in 2017,” says Mark.
“I wanted to write about the history of hedonism, especially the writings of Epicurus and his philosophy of pleasure as the pinnacle of human achievement and the goal of life.
“But in the course of my research I discovered this odd character in the plays of Aristophanes, someone the playwright repeatedly attacked over a period of more than thirty years—I knew this was a story that had never been told, and so I went down the rabbit hole, exploring the birth of comedy and how one forgotten playwright’s sexual habits might have affected the history of the world.”
Mark explains just how he went about conducting all of the research required in order to be able to paint the scenes in his book in the intricate detail that he did.
“It’s funny because there is a lot of information about ancient Athens,” says Mark. “Some of it we can assume is true, because it is based on legal documents and official proclamations, and then there are various poems, plays, philosophical and science writing that has survived.”
“But a lot of what we think we know is speculation by scholars and historians over the past two thousand years. They’re really just guessing.
“I think it helps that I’m a novelist. I’m used to imagining life,” he adds.
“I read as much as I could, especially about the politics and civic life that surrounded the comic theatre, but the best part for me was spending time walking around the Kerameikos and Agora trying to imagine what that world was like,” says Mark, explaining that he took several trips to Athens while writing this book.
“Your readers will laugh because one time I spent August in Athens, which means I had the place to myself,” recalls Mark.
“But I absolutely love the city. Pretty much like Los Angeles or New York, once you get away from the tourist sector, you’ll find one of the most dynamic and friendly cities in the world.
“I stayed primarily in Metaxourgeio and the Kerameikos neighborhoods, and my wife and I are trying to figure out a way to move there.
“It helps that I think Greek food might be the best in the world.”
As much as Mark adores Athens he has also sailed fairly extensively through the Sporades and Cyclades.
“I love Naxos and Kofounisia, they are just beautiful,” he says.
“Also the best restaurant in the world, at least in my top ten, is Taverna Mesogia on Skiathos.”
Recommendation noted and very much appreciated, thank you Mark!
“If you haven’t been reading Mark Haskell Smith, get your sh*t together.”
Dr. Emma Southon, author of ‘A Fatal Thing Happened Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome’, says, “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!”
The book also just received its first review, from ‘Publishers Weekly’: “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.”
Basically, as American author Lisa Lutz so delicately puts it, “If you haven’t been reading Mark Haskell Smith, get your sh*t together.”
Mark Haskell Smith is the author of six novels: ‘Moist’, ‘Delicious’, ‘Salty’, ‘Baked’, ‘Raw: A Love Story’, and ‘Blown’. He has also written the non-fiction books ‘Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup’ and ‘Naked At Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in a Clothing-Optional World’. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and Vulture. Smith is an assistant professor in the MFA program for Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert Graduate Center. He lives in Los Angeles.