When did you first hear the “why did the chicken cross the road” joke? (And, when you first heard it, did you scratch your head in bewilderment about why the joke was supposedly funny?)
The jest about the wandering but evidently purposeful chicken is generally considered to be one of the oldest continuously circulating jokes in the modern world. It actually has its own Wikipedia page, which traces the history of the joke back to an 1847 reference in a New York magazine called Knickerbocker. In that pre-Civil War publication, the joke is presented as a “conundrum” or “quip and quillet” — a kind of riddle that the writer clearly thought was a real groaner. The arc of the joke can then be traced through the ensuing decades, where it added bells and whistles and additional information all designed to cause the listener to think that the answer is something other than the traditional one.
But while the joke books of the late 19th century present the chicken and road joke as one of many overripe chestnuts you might hear from that joke-spouting uncle who thought he was a real card, you can see that many of the other common jokes that were in circulation in those days have long since been buried. You don’t hear many “parson” jokes these days, or jokes about chickens generally, for that matter. And yet — the awful chicken and road joke endures, like the B.O. that couldn’t be eliminated from the car in that Seinfeld episode. Why?
The Wikipedia page describes the joke as “an example of anti-humor, in that the curious setup of the joke leads the listener to expect a traditional punchline, but they are instead given a simple statement of fact.” That clinical description doesn’t really fully capture the point of the joke, though. Unlike most purported jokes, which hope to provoke a laugh from the listener, the chicken joke is obviously designed to allow the joke-teller to laugh at the listener’s expense while the listener feels like a perplexed idiot. I’m pretty sure that happened the first time I heard it, and it has left me wary about jokes ever since. It was a valuable lesson, I suppose, but it’s just too bad that I had to hear the chicken and road joke to learn it.