Random Topic: The origins of knock-knock jokes

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*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”.

This is Ridiculous

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I posted this link on my Facebook page this morning. The caption was: “Happy April Fool’s Day! Here’s a sample of what we’re doing in choir today…though the words have been changed a bit.” I wonder how many people thought it was an April Fool’s Day prank. Certainly the expressions in the congregation were of incredulity the first time we whacked our heads with our choir folders. There were a few “they’re doing what?” expressions. I even saw a few “they’re not….” faces. But my favorites were the hand-covering-gaping-mouth-and-eyes-popping reactions.

As an introduction to the sermon, it was perfect. The anthem for the service was a variation on Pete Seeger’s version of “Old Time Religion”. Trust a Unitarian Universalist church to celebrate the ridiculous in a service. The sermon itself was along the theme of what UU jokes reveal about us. Much laughter ensued.

For those (two) people who are anxious about what my words of reflection today were:

I look into this flame I’ve lit,
And I watch it
Laugh and dance
And sparkle and spit.
I say to myself and to God:
This is what I want to be.

And for those who want to know which lyrics to “Old Time Religion” we used:

Give me that old time religion (3x)
And that’s good enough for me.

We will pray to Aphrodite
Even tho’ she’s rather flighty
And they say she wears no nightie
And that’s good enough for me.

O-old Odin we will follow
And in fighting we will wallow
Til we wind up in Valhalla
And that’s good enough for me.


Let me follow dear old Buddha
For there is nobody cuter
He comes in plaster, wood or pewter
And that’s good enough for me.

We will pray with Zarathustra
Pray just like we useta
I’m a Zarathustra booster
And that’s good enough for me.


We will pray with those old Druids
They drink fermented fluids
Waltzing naked thru the woo-ids
And that’s good enough for me.

I’ll arise at early morning
When the sun gives me the warning
That the solar age is dawning
And that’s good enough for me.

(Chorus) x2