How To Tell A Joke

Last week, my pal Jacob told me a joke.  He’s two-and-a-half.  He lives a couple of blocks from my place.

Bailey and Joshua — almost seven and almost five — prodded him on, evidently delighted that their baby brother could tell a joke.

“Jacob has a joke for you,” Bailey told me.  Jake grinned and nodded and nothing happened.  “Say knock knock,” she whispered to him.

“Knock knock,” said Jake

“Who’s there?” I asked.

“Batman,” he told me.

“Batman who?”

“Bad guys!” he said, and burst into hysterics.

Before the day was out, he told me this gag four or five times, and each time we all had a good laugh over it.

There are some in the adult world who don’t quite get this joke.  For their benefit, let me explain why it’s funny.

Jacob is at the stage when he’s picking up words faster than the dog is shedding hairs.  His pronunciation still sometimes requires simultaneous translation from the nearest sibling — earnal-tuba turns out to mean he wants his Ernie toothbrush — but he’s a living antenna for the conversations that swirl around him.

He hears older kids tell knock knock jokes.  He understands their structure perfectly.  The first declaration of identity establishes an expectation that the subsequent elaboration somehow undermines.  He also understands that knock knock jokes turn on wordplay in which one word sounds in part like another.  (Knock knock. Who’s there?  Amos.  Amos who?  A mosquito.)

How to make up a knock knock joke if you only have a vocabulary of about 90 words and your memory doesn’t extend much past the last time your cuddle blanket was in the laundry?  Take a look at the architecture of Jake’s joke.

Who’s there?  “Batman.”  In Jake’s mind, Batman is a towering figure who stands for all that’s good and true and heroic.  Batman who?  “Bad guys!”  The very opposite of Batman.  Just what you were least expecting. Ha ha!

Sticklers will suggest that the joke would work better if the punch line were “Bad men” rather than “Bad guys” — if only because there would be more formal poetic assonance with the premise “Batman.”  Maybe so, but I think that from Jake’s point of view the fact that both words begin with “ba” is good enough.

In any case, the truly sophisticated knock knock joke dispenses with the strict requirement that there be consonance, assonance or rhyme. Think of the Monty Python routine in which Eric Idle rings a doorbell and announces “Burglar!”  The housewife who answers is skeptical.  “You’re not an encyclopedia salesman?”

“No Ma’am,” he insists.  “Burglar.  Just want to come in and ransack the flat.”

Reassured, she lets him in, only to have him ask whether she’s “ever really considered the benefit of a full set of encyclopedias?”

The deep structure of Jake’s joke is identical.  I am not who I say I am.  Jacob Greenspon is two-and-a-half. In comedy, as in life, timing is