About Joe Miller’s Jests
Joe Miller was a popular comic actor on the London stage from 1709 until his death in 1738. A year later, the publisher T. Read enlisted a down-and-out writer named John Mottley to compile a book of jokes, and stuck Miller’s name onto it. Not only did Joe Miller originate only a handful of the Jests published posthumously under his name; he was apparently illiterate.
The book proved wildly popular, and a series of ever-expanding editions followed: By 1865, there were nearly 1300 jests in the volume. Meanwhile, the late comedian’s name entered the vernacular: A Joe Miller is a groaner, a hackneyed joke.
In his introduction to the 1962 Dover facsimile edition of the 1739 Joe Miller, Robert Hutchinson does a nice job placing the book in the context of its era and exploring the reasons for its popularity, which I won’t attempt to do here. (I’d love to reproduce Hutchinson’s introduction on this page. If you happen to know someone at Dover Publications who might help me get permission to do so, or Robert Hutchinson himselfis he alive?please let me know.) This New Yorker article by Jim Holt is also good background, and an entertaining read.
The original title page: