All joking aside, today is National Tell a Joke Day. It’s a day for laughter, levity, and wit. Unfortunately, I already took my serious pills this morning, so this post isn’t likely to make you laugh much. Instead, we’ll be taking a good, hard, and serious look at the origins of The Joke.
How did the first joke go? Who told it? And was it a good one? Well, I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I’ll share with you as much as I’ve learned…
The Knock-Knock Joke is thought to have its origins around the year 1900 in which a journalist of the ‘Oakland Tribune’ wrote of a jokester in the streets who was approaching random strangers and asking if they knew Arthur. And when they expectantly replied, “Arthur who?” he would call out “Arthur-mometer!” and then run away laughing.
The humorous spirit of this street jokester caught on and over the years his antics developed the Knock-Knock format that we all know today. By 1935, everybody had heard of Knock-Knock Jokes. Strangers engaged one another in the street with a “Knock-Knock.” Knock-Knock Contests were held by businesses. You couldn’t even turn on the radio without hearing a Knock-Knock gag.
More than 50 years earlier than Knock-Knock Jokes, a question was posed concerning the reason for a flightless fowl to cross a thoroughfare. This was first asked in an 1847 issue of a New York magazine called ‘The Knickerbocker’. It read:
Question: ‘Why does a chicken cross the street?’ Answer: ‘Because it wants to get on the other side!’
This was the first popular example of a non-joke in which the punchline isn’t clever or funny in any way—the humor lies in subverting the expected, knee-slapping reason that the listener is waiting for. The joke is that there is no joke. Love it or hate it, it’s led to a million alternative and ridiculous answers as to why exactly a chicken might cross a road.
Timeless Toilet Humor
But jokes go back even further than that. In fact, jokes are so old that there likely aren’t any new ones really—just twists on age-old observations. Did you know that toilet humor has been traced back to our ancient ancestors because—let’s face it—farting is funny no matter what generation you’re from.
An unearthed Sumerian tablet that dates back nearly 4500 years yields the oldest recorded joke ever. When translated, it reads:
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s embrace.”
The joke being that women are so discrete about passing gas that they won’t do it in front of their husbands. A modern retelling of this joke might look more like this: Question: ‘What’s something that’s never happened in all of history?’ Answer: ‘A wife farting while she hugs her husband.’
Okay, well, nobody said the ancients were hilarious. Our humor has evolved as time goes on and things that we found funny years ago may not be so entertaining in this day and age. But the essence of what makes us laugh will always remain. Have some good laughs today and share some of your favorite jokes with your friends and family. Happy Joke Day, All! And, as always, thanks for reading!