The Oldest (And Lamest) Joke

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?)

diginomicaThe 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.

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My First Joke

When did you first hear, and “get,” a joke, and what was it?  Having a sense of humor in the modern world is so essential, and understanding what jokes are, and what “funny” means, is a crucial component of developing that important part of human character — but for many of us remembering how you learned about jokes and getting a laugh out of them is something that is lost in the mists of time.

img_5819Humor seems to be an innate characteristic of human beings.  Little kids laugh at lots of things, like tumbling puppies, and pratfalls, and playing peek-a-boo, and the sheer joy of being alive, but verbal humor is a pretty big step up from visual humor.  It’s the difference between watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon and laughing because Bugs has tied the unwitting Elmer Fudd’s shotgun into a bow and when Elmer tries to fire it the shotgun blows up in his face, and later understanding and smiling at the humor in Bugs’ wisecracks.

I’m pretty sure that the first joke I ever heard was of the “knock-knock” variety.  That’s not surprising when you think about it, because “knock-knock” jokes are about as simple as a joke can get, with their standard set-up and uniform cadence and silly plays on words.  They are the kindergarten level of humor, where you get to play with clay, and color things, and take a nap after drinking a juice box — but kindergarten is still a crucial first step on the educational ladder.  And I’m pretty sure that I remember what the joke was:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Dwayne.

Dwayne who?

Dwayne the bathtub, I’m dwowning!

I’m also confident that whoever told me the joke — maybe it was UJ, maybe it was an older neighborhood kid, maybe it was an older relative — patiently explained the joke to me so I would understand, and then asked:  “Get it?”  And, after thinking about it, I realized that I did “get” it.  It wasn’t fall-down funny or anything, but it was clever in its own elementary way, and saying the word “dwowning” sounded pretty funny, too.  And I’m pretty sure that I tried that joke out on some other little kid, because learning how to tell a joke is almost as important as “getting” a joke in the first place.

Thanks to that “knock-knock,” a doorway opened, and I went through to be introduced to a world of one-liner jokes about screwing in lightbulbs and horses walking into bars and men getting no respect, and observational humor and satire and farce and anecdotal humor and situational comedy and everything else that makes us chuckle.  That little joke ended up meaning a lot.

It’s Michigan Week! (II)

I would call the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan during the week of The Game a friendly rivalry — except it really isn’t.  Deep down, every Buckeyes fan wants to crush Michigan like a cockroach.  We want to punish them, humiliate them, and leave them wailing forlornly to their misbegotten gods. Michigan fans share this perspective.

But, since we aren’t fighting with broadswords, we need to make do with humor.  When I was a kid, and Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler were fighting the 10-Year War, the battle was waged with bumper stickers.  I remember one of the Michigan bumper stickers said:  “Save Fuel.  Burn Woody!”  And I thought — boy, Michigan fans are about as funny as, say, Jerry Lewis during the MDA telethon.

The Ohio side of the humor equation, however, isn’t appreciably better.  Consider these two representative efforts:

1.  “A University of Michigan fan walks into a doctor’s office and removes his hat to reveal a frog sitting on his head. The doctor asks, ‘How can I help you?’ The frog replies, ‘I was wondering if you could help me get this wart off my butt.'”

2.  “Two University of Michigan grads are laughing it up on their way into a bar.  The bartender asks:  ‘Hey, why are you guys so happy?’  One of the Wolverines says, ‘Well, to be honest with you, we’re proud of ourselves.  We just finished a puzzle in a week, and when we were done we noticed the box said 4 to 6 years.'”

In Ohio, we try to make our statements on the football field.

That Classic Dry British Wit

A competition in Great Britain picked the ten best one-liners of the year, as determined by public vote.

The winner?  Canadian comedian Stewart Francis’ jibe:  “You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks.”

If, like me, you don’t know who the heck “Posh” and “Becks” are, you just don’t get this quip.  With a little digging, however, you learn that “Becks” is British soccer star David Beckham and “Posh” is his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, and that they have named their unfortunate children Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper Seven — and suddenly you think that the one-liner is pretty funny.

Two other personal favorites from the top 10:  Will Marsh’s comment that “I was raised as an only child, which really annoyed my sister” (number 3) and Chris Turner’s jest, “I’m good friends with 25 letters of the alphabet… I don’t know Y” (number 5).