Culture

Anatomy of a Knock-Knock Joke, or How to Raise Funny Kids Without Even Trying

Image via Tanu842011/Wikimedia

Knock knock.

Who’s there.

Mr. Piggy Pants.

Great. Mr. Piggy Pants who.

Mr. Piggy Pants went to … the funniest place … and everyone came with him. Haaa.

Mmm. Uhuh. Quick, change the sub—

Knock knock. I said knock knock.

OOOOkay, let me explain something. Here is how knock-knock jokes work….

That’s a cross-section of yesterday morning’s pre-coffee minivan conversation on our way to Grammy’s, conducted with an unsafe number of glances in the rearview mirror. As dad to a family of too many explanations and too few old-fashioned look over there propaganda decoys, I frequently commit myself to explaining things I don’t understand—particularly things that bother me but which I am reluctant to abolish without being able to articulate why. Unfortunately, articulation usually involves reasoning with my children, who interpret this as an invitation to debate, deliberate, distinguish, etc. In other words, they argue—not because I’m afraid to pull rank, which I frequently do, but because I’m in the middle of something, kids, and wouldn’t it be a shame if my parenting got in the way of my pontificating.

Before I go further, I should address why a grown man who claims to hate knock-knock jokes is spending more time thinking about them than most adults should. The answer is that I couldn’t care less about understanding knock-knocks, but I do want to understand my kids, particularly my five-year-old, who recently started tilting at windmills in his quest for everybody (somebody? isn’t there anybody?) to regard him as hilarious.

So here is what I said:

To make a good knock-knock, start with the answer you want to end with, then split it up between the knocker and the door opener in a way others won’t expect.

Lord knows why that didn’t impress my children, whose combined age is seven. Their owl eyes just hung there in my mirror. So I gave an example:

Knock knock. (Me)

Who’s there? (Jonah, genuinely curious)

G.

G who?? Hey, I have one. Knock knock.

What? No. I’m trying to explain something to you. Plus I’m in the middle of a joke.

Oh. You can finish.

Thanks. G.I. Joe. (Man, I hate this.)

Haaaa. That was a really good one, Dad.

Well. OK. Do you know what a G.I. Joe is?

Of course, it’s a good guy.

Good enough.

Yep. Actually that joke isn’t funny.

He’s right, despite my having followed the rules. You may say I did it wrong, that I needed a cleverer word combination—say, “Al” and “Coholic”—to keep the element of surprise, but I disagree. If the thought of a man named Al Coholic is funny, its humor is inherent and needs no knock-knock framework—doorframe—whatever. The knock-knock is nothing but a shell for the already funny; it contributes nothing (except frustration). It adds no value, and in fact conducts an even less funny Q & A session than someone asking you point blank, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if there were a guy named Al Coholic?” I don’t know, would it? Probably not any funnier than if he had a buddy named G.I. Joe. But frame this within a knock-knock, and you’ll only drain off what little laughing power these names may pack.

All this is but a necessary stepping stone to the real question. Now that I have ogrishly obliterated my children’s favorite kind of joke, I must know why they persist in cracking them—and laughing—every time. Does not the mere fact of their laughter quash Dad’s fine reasoning? Has the emperor with the arguments lost his clothes?

Never. Knock-knocks are not funny. My kids don’t like them; they like telling them. The content is awful but the activity is fun, and for that simple reason we must suspend analysis: not because of some pathetic and unsupportable truth claim like “because fun should only be enjoyed not analyzed,” but because the moment you reach out to grab fun, it vanishes. Fun, like happiness, is not a commodity bought and sold on its own, but a concomitant: a byproduct of something else you are seeking. (You didn’t buy “fun tickets” that one summer; you bought concert tickets, and you had fun.) The equation resembles what C.S. Lewis said of enjoying meaningful life on earth: “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”

More simply, you can’t chase the fun, but it can chase you:

Knock knock.

Okay. Who’s there.

Tree.

Tree who.

Tree with eyes. Is that funny?

No.

Knock knock.

Who’s there.

Tree.

Tree who.

Tree that is falling down. Is that funny?

Do you think it’s funny?

Yes…?

No.

Knock—

No, wait, let your sister try. Annie, do you know what we’re doing? [Nods.] Go ahead.

Who’s there.

Um…?

WHO’S THERE.

Knock … knock? No, I mean—

Knock knock who?

I—I don’t know.

Oh. Okay, come in.

What? No, Annie—you never open the door for someone you don’t know. Haven’t you been listening?

She may only be two, but my daughter has cracked the code of the knock-knock, even if by chance: don’t tell one. Tell an imposter instead—one that knocks six times instead of two, or better yet, reverses the roles without telling the players, or something else no knock-knock should do. You can do this only once or twice before the surprise is forever spent, and in doing so you’re conceding that the old model is already dead as a door knocker. But you’re also affirming for your kids that true comedy is creative, and that they can be too.

End lesson; we pull into the driveway and pause the jokes. First the boy and then the girl hop down onto the cement, and together we walk up to the porch, where I pose my last question (for now) to these novice jesters:

Okay, we’re at Grammy’s. Who wants to knock?