Funny Old Joke

I have a funny old joke for you. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Granted, you’ve probably heard this riddle a long time ago, likely from a parent when you were a kid, just as they heard it from their parent years earlier, and so on, back to Ancient Egypt, where the first jokester observed the first chicken crossing the first paved road. If I offer up the standard punchline you may not find the joke funny and may be disappointed with me after leading you on that I had a funny joke. But I assert, to someone who has never heard the joke before, particularly if they are five years old, the punchline is amusing. I’ve already established the pleasantry is as old as roads, therefore, I contend it is still a funny old joke. Just not to you.

As a logical humorist, I find this paradox interesting. Obviously, I try to find humorous ways to relate the human condition, but I always risk the possibility of telling an old joke that many will not find amusing, or a new joke that many cannot follow. If I tell the story of how I slipped on a banana peel, a humorous situation because of the improbability of the encounter and the jocularity of the banana itself, it may not be funny to those who have seen any of the dozens of old movies that use the “slipping on a banana peel” gag. If I tell you I almost slipped on a banana peel, but hopped over it and fell down a manhole, that could be funny, but not if you’ve heard Charlie Chaplin use that scenario as an explanation of what is and isn’t humorous. If I tell you I hopped over the banana peel knocking a miserly old banker down the manhole in front of his bank, and the bank’s lights flashed and alarms sounded like a winning pinball machine, that just might make you laugh. But if you’ve never experienced the original “slipping on a banana peel” gag, you might only be confused. Hence the dilemma.

Such is the nature of humor. Much like artists and musicians, writers of humor have little opportunity to create entirely new ideas, we simply build upon the ideas of those who have created before us. The next guy after me can’t use the “knocking the banker down the manhole” gag after it becomes too well known to be funny, so he’ll tell the story of how, as he avoided bumping into an old miserly banker, he accidentally knocked a man in a banana peel costume down a manhole. Or, he might tell how he slipped and fell while walking in front of the First Banana Peel National Bank. (Except now he can’t, because I just used up those jokes too.) But, like an art newbie staring at a Jackson Pollock painting, the joke receiver might be entirely mystified by the entity unless he understands some of the history leading up to that point.

Any joke can transcend time, all it needs is a new audience. That is why the “chicken crossing the road” joke persists; there will always be a new batch of five-year-olds to tell the joke to. But some transcend time because they are adaptable to the changes of the times, adaptable to the sophistication of the audience, and adaptable to play off past iterations, like the banana peel joke: A man walking down the sidewalk receives a text message with a picture of a banana peel. As he looks at the photo, he slips and falls down a manhole. The joke evolves over time, like art.

The success of the joke, of course, lies in the audience’s perception: it will be funny if the punchline is novel and unexpected. But it also needs to be understood. The situation of a man spontaneously slipping and falling as he stares at a marble statue of a banana peel probably won’t be understood by someone unfamiliar with the original banana peel gag. But to you, it’s funny.

So why did the chicken cross the road? To avoid the side cluttered with banana peels, bankers, and manholes.