Why did the chicken cross the road?

2019-04-19

The other day someone asked why the joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is supposed to be funny. That’s a good question, and to answer it we need to ask why jokes are ever funny in the first place.

The root of humour is surprise. The setup creates certain expectations in the mind of the listener, and the punchline violates those expectations. That’s surprising, which is funny.

There’s more to it than just surprise, of course. Any random sentence following a setup would be surprising. You could say “Because the octopus released a multi-platinum hit single,” and that would be surprising, but that doesn’t make it funny. But if it’s going to be funny, it has to be surprising. A joke is never funny if you see the punchline coming.

Once we get the idea that a joke is supposed to be surprising, it opens the door to meta-jokes. If you start with an obvious setup, the listener is now expecting a punchline. If you don’t deliver, that’s surprising in itself. That’s why the chicken crossing the road is funny.

I compared it to the old dad joke “Q: Where were you when the power went out? A: In the dark.” It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Which is surprising, which weirdly makes it funny, so it also is a joke. Get it?

Okay, so it’s not that funny. Nobody ever said that this was the pinnacle of joke-telling. Jokes about chickens crossing the road date back to the 1840s. In terms of joke technology this is like banging rocks together to make fire. It’s not exactly Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But that’s why it’s supposed to be funny. And now that I’ve explained it, it never will be again.