*Warning: the facts in this post may or may not be true. Enjoy!*

What is humor? Depending on the era you’re talking about, it is: a liquid in the body that determines health and well-being, what you and/or others consider funny, or ice cream. The most common usage is, of course, the second: what is considered funny.

Literature recognizes three levels of humor: common, low, and refined. Common refers to potty humor, slapstick, and things everybody has experienced. Low humor includes things such as humorous stories, puns, and the absurd. In other words, humor that requires a certain minimal amount of thought. Refined humor requires more than minimal thought. “Jokes” in the refined humor category are not always obvious. In fact it is not unusual for humor at this level to be completely missed by those around you.

The key to the differences between the levels seems to be the amount of world knowledge and experience that is required to understand it. Common is called “common” because everyone understands the references, whether they actually find the joke or incident amusing. Low is called “low” because that is the level of education and experience necessary to “get it”. Refined is called “refined” because it refers to knowledge, experiences, and attitudes that have been distilled to such a degree that not everyone, or even most, would appreciate the humor.

Where, then, do knock-knock jokes fall on this continuum? Given that the majority of knock-knock jokes are based on puns and homonyms, I’d peg them at “low” humor. But why are they a part of our culture? Where did they come from?

The first recorded knock-knock joke was less of a formula joke, and more of an unfortunate incident involving the evolution of language. Privacy has value. This is a concept that even our cousins the neanderthals understood. The invention of a solid door revolutionized privacy. All the most up to date chiefs had one. The problem was that doors were so effective at creating privacy, they blocked or muffled sound. One chief fell victim to this muffling problem in a rather embarrassing way.

The chief’s consort at the time was a woman named Gunthag. (Don’t laugh. It translates into “Beautiful Woman”.) Unfortunately, she had a twin brother by the name of Gunthorn. (“Beautiful Man”) The chief waited one evening for a visit from Gunthag. Upon hearing a knock on his prized door, he asked “Who?” He thought he heard “Gunthag”, so he decided to surprise his consort by opening the door in the buff. What the person had actually said, though, was “Gunthorn”. That chief discovered in a rather “common” way that Gunthorn had the same taste in men that Gunthag did.

If I recall correctly, that was the same chief who invented the “peep hole”.