“Here’s an old joke for you. ‘What’s black and white and red all over?’ ‘Plague of the North, they shall devour human flesh and snakes, women and little children.'”

Here’s an old joke for you. What’s black and white and red all over? Give up? “Plague of the North, they shall devour human flesh and snakes, women and little children.”That joke was written by Nostradamus, and even in his day it wasn’t funny.

His first recorded standup act was in 1524, at a club in Avignon called Le membre malade (The Diseased Limb). He got the gig because his parents, Francesca and Steve Nostradamus, were friends with the owner. Back then his act was mostly jokes about Martin Luther. One of them survived, it goes like this: “Why doesn’t Martin Luther laugh? Because his nose is too small!” This didn’t work, so he started making Vasco Da Gama jokes instead – his first joke book was called “Da Gama Yo Momma.” But then Da Gama died and critics said Nostradamus’s act was in poor taste.

This went on for years, with Nostradamus making jokes about a different European figures to little success. Finally another comedian, “Crazy” Nicolo Picardy (best joke: “Knock knock, who’s there? The plague? Aaaaaagh!”), offered to bring Nostradamus on tour as an opening act if he’d just stop with the jokes about explorers. So Nostradamus decided to become a “shock” comedian. He’d throw chickens into the audience, or ask women in the audience to take their tops off, or make fun of people with leprosy. This usually cleared the room, which of course made “Crazy” Nicolo mad. But Nostradamus thought this was even funnier than his “Da Gama period,” and started weaving more weird imagery into the act. For a while he used a puppet, “Bucky,” as his sidekick and straight man:

Bucky: So, boss, did you hear about the explorer who forgot to put his pants on before sailing to the New World?

Nostradamus: One-eyed, red-haired, white, hoary-headed will hold the course,
Which will change for the new Constable.

By 1555 Nostradamus had become a veteran of the French comedy circuit, though his act was still terrible. Finally his manager, Henri “Lucky” Legault, realized the only way to save his protege was to get him out of comedy altogether. So he took the manuscript of Nostradamus’s upcoming book “Back Dat Ass Up, Yo’ Highness” and changed the title to Les Propheties, and he marketed Nostradamus not as a standup comic but as a seer. The rest was history, or the future.

No one else has successfully made the switch from comic to seer, though Gallagher started out by running a palmistry house in Florida and made the switch to comics. I bet Nostradamus didn’t see that one coming though.

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