Familiar, well-trod joke formats didn’t begin with your dad. Knock-knock jokes, chickens crossing roads, and bad wordplay have been delighting/making people groan for generations. Here’s how some of the oldest surviving jokes started.
1. Why did the chicken cross the road?
It’s the most famous joke and also most non-joke joke in the English language. Its first appearance in print came in an 1847 issue of The Knickerbocker, a magazine for fancy New Yorkers. On a you-send-it-in page called “Gossip With Readers and Correspondents,” a reader whose identity is lost to time wrote in:
There are ‘quips and quillets’ which seem actual conundrums, but yet are none. Of such is this: ‘Why does a chicken cross the street?’ Are you ‘out of town?’ Do you ‘give it up?’ Well, then: ‘Because it wants to get on the other side!’
2. What’s black and white and read/red all over?
A newspaper. Or, if you’re a fourth grader, two zebras in a blender, two nuns in a chainsaw fight, etc. The origin goes back to the late 19th century, back when newspapers were still popular enough that they could be the punchline of a widespread joke. According to historian Mac Barrick in a 1974 report in The Newspaper Riddle Joke, the riddle—playing off the similar pronunciation of red and read—appeared in 15 different folk riddle collections in the early 20th century. Which suggests that this dumb joke just kind of spread throughout the U.S. in the late 1800s.
3. "Yo Mama" jokes.
Yo mama is so dumb, she thinks yo mama jokes were only a fad in the ‘90s. These jokes started as an inner city street game in the ‘60s called the Dozens. Two guys would freestyle insult each other (and, of course, each other’s mothers) until one& couldn’t top the other. Still, the insult game—and why it’s called the Dozens—go back way farther, and gets way darker. In her article Still Laughing to Keep from Crying, author Mona Lisa Saloy says that the Dozens originated in the New Orleans slave trade, where slaves that had been punished for disobedience were sold cheaply in bulk, by the dozens. To be one of “the dozens” was about the lowest state for a human being.
4. Polish jokes.
This style of racist joke (the punchline of all variations is essentially that Polish people are stupid) was invented by the Nazis, who destroyed Poland and millions of its residents in the 1930s and 1940s. Through its massive propaganda machine, Nazis spread a news report that an uprising of Polish soldiers had attacked German tanks. They’re so stupid, those Poles! The reason: Hitler figured that if the rest of Europe thought Poland was stupid and worthless, they wouldn’t much care if he took it over. But Polish jokes well outlasted World War II.
5. Knock-knock jokes.
In modern times, knocking on a door and having someone say, "Who's there?" and then replying with a joke answer probably originated during the Prohibition. To drink at a speakeasy, you'd have to knock on the door, and when asked, "Who's there?" provide a password. Things would get pretty silly if the patron entering was already drunk. It became something of a drinking game. But if you want to take it all the way back, Shakespeare invented the knock-knock joke. Check out this bit of a monolog from Macbeth:
knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of
Beelzebub? Here's a farmer, that hanged
himself on the expectation of plenty: come in
time; have napkins enow about you; here
you'll sweat for't.