Friday, July 23, 2010

School of hard knock-knocks.

This happened a couple of years ago, before I had this blog, but I was reminded of it today for some reason.

I'm telling Tertius (then about four or five years old) some knock-knock jokes, but he's not getting the idea of the pun. Instead he insists on starting the joke himself, giving me a first name, and then when I say, say "John Who?" he just adds the family name of a friend at his nursery school.*

Trying to be encouraging at all times, I explain that it's awfully nice to remember your friends, but just repeating their names lacks a tad on the laughing-my-ass-off front.

"Look," I say, "what's funny is when something surprises you, when it's silly. For example, if I say I just saw a brown cow, you might be interested, but you wouldn't giggle much." (Tertius could giggle for Britain.) "But if I say I saw an orange cow, you'd laugh because it's such a silly idea."

And he duly does. "I get it," he claims. "Okay, let me try again. Knock knock."

"Who's there?"

"Apple," he answers. Apple? Where did that come from?

"Apple. . . who?" I ask, with trepidation.

"Orange cow!" he explodes gleefully.

*Alice, the dim verger on The Vicar of Dibley, played to perfection by the magnificent Emma Chambers, did the same thing once, during the regular post-credits joke-telling spot with the equally redoubtable Dawn French.


  1. orange cow...lolol he's got something there. Probably struck my funny bone as I remember a similar conversation with my eldest.

  2. I think all humor is rooted in incongruity -- the expected v. the unexpected, the proper v. the improper, the official v. the subversive. John Cleese's Basil Fawlty is outstandingly hilarious because of the mismatch between his snobbish, intolerant personality and his job requirements as a hotel manager.

    I don't think there's any better determinant of shared culture than saying people laugh at the same things, for the same reasons. (A shared sense of humor is a pretty good indicator of personal compatibility too. And vice versa.)

    For children, I believe shared laughter has a crucial function, in that confirms their developing worldview. From birth, they have to make a mental map of the world that coheres with the reality out there. To laugh at the idea of an orange cow (or a talking skunk or a flying elephant or a divaesque sow) serves to solidify their conceptual structure. It's a moment of huge relief, when something outside their range of experience turns out to be a joke, which reinforces their work to date. Silliness has a purpose.