When I was 4, my favorite joke to tell my family members went like this:
“Guitar if you don’t have a house!”
Every time I delivered the punch line, I would look expectantly at my audience, who would, after a moment, either politely chuckle or just squint in bewilderment. Guitar if you don’t have a house? Literally nothing is funny or clever about Guitar if you don’t have a house. Not only is it not a sentence, but there is no pun or wordplay to catch onto, no meta-textual wink to make it a joke about jokes. It’s just a bunch of words that are familiar to small children, arranged haphazardly within the well-known structure of a knock-knock joke. My mom laughs more now telling me about my meaningless, weirdly endearing stand-up routine than she ever did at my performance of it.
Guitar if you don’t have a house is a typical example of a kid punch line—strange, absurd, of unknown origins. The Tumblr page Kids Write Jokes, launched in 2012, offers hundreds of jokes that are a lot like my old guitar joke—in other words, they sound like jokes, but they’re amusing more because they’re bizarre than because they’re clever. A sampling:
“Who is smelly and has no body? A pumpkin.”
“A man and a lizard walk into a bar and the barman says, ‘No lizards.’”
“Why didn’t the dog have a family? Because it was too stinky to have one.”
“Do you want me to wash your house?”
“No, thank you.”
There are a few different reasons kids make these weird, often wildly unfunny jokes. According to Allyssa McCabe, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who specializes in children’s language development, little kids’ jokes are a bit like babies’ babbling: Babies learn the sounds and rhythms of spoken communication before they learn actual words, which results in “expressive jargon,” the instinctive language of babies that lacks real words but nonetheless still conveys when they’re inquisitive, when they’re pleased, and when they’re upset. (There’s a whole delightful genre of “expressive jargon” baby videos on YouTube, McCabe points out, for those who are curious.)
Similarly, McCabe says, slightly older children—often around preschool age—learn the rhythms and formats of jokes without really understanding how humor is supposed to work, resulting in nonsense that has the shape of a joke but isn’t, really.
Kids also tend to pick up on the fact that when an adult tells a joke, the joke teller is often rewarded with attention and approval, which can be empowering to the teller. The same goes for saying swear words, McCabe adds—minus the approval part. “[Kids] get a lot of unfortunate reactions to the swearing,” McCabe laughs. But when preschool-age kids attempt to tell jokes, “because it’s so nonsensical and cute, they do get a lot of [positive] reactions,” which can then encourage more joke-telling attempts.
Stanley Dubinsky, an English professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of Understanding Language Through Humor, agrees that kids tend to tell bizarre jokes because they haven’t yet mastered what exactly makes a joke, a joke. And what makes it a joke, he explains, is that it presents an “incongruity”—a surprising and perplexing query or situation—and then resolves it coherently.
Kids, especially those younger than grade school–age, are frequently exposed to jokes they don’t understand, Dubinsky says, and not just those that are thrown into Pixar movies for the benefit of parents. “Even when their parents are feeding them ‘dad jokes’ to try to teach them about humor, half of the jokes that kids hear, they don’t quite get.” So it’s only natural, Dubinsky says, for some children to believe that a couple of absurd or mismatched concepts assembled into a familiar “knock-knock” or “What do you call …” structure adds up to a joke.
“Kids say, ‘Oh, jokes are about incongruity. I’ll show you some incongruity,’” Dubinsky says. “But they haven’t got the sophistication to construct an incongruity that’s going to be resolvable.”
Which, coincidentally, sometimes results in jokes that resemble a more advanced form of humor: an “anti-joke.” Anti-jokes deliberately deny the audience a clever or satisfying punch line, and they often serve as edgy or sophisticated commentary on jokes themselves. For example: “What did one Frenchman say to the other? I don’t know. I don’t speak French.” “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? The Holocaust.” On the spectrum of humor sophistication, Dubinsky says, at one end there are little kids’ goofy, unfunny jokes, and just beyond that are dad jokes—in which the incongruity resolves, but the punch line is so obvious that it’s barely funny. Anti-jokes, meanwhile, Dubinsky places at the opposite end of the spectrum; they’re like pranks, he says, on audiences with pedestrian-enough tastes to expect a joke to have a punch line. But some of the funniest entries on Kids Write Jokes also function as anti-jokes. Dubinsky’s favorite: “Why did the tiger throw up on the couch? He was sick.”
McCabe, in her research on children’s language development, has heard plenty of jokes from small children that only the children themselves find funny. But she puts those in a category she calls “smart mistakes”—verbal mistakes that kids make because they’re on their way to being aware of the way words and communication work. Saying “goed” instead of “went,” for instance, is a smart mistake: Kids know what go means and know the general rule for how to make a word past tense, but haven’t mastered the unusual conjugation of that particular verb. A child telling a nonsensical joke, similarly, results from her having come to understand the linguistic characteristics and the social role of a joke, even if she hasn’t yet grasped what makes one funny.
Parents who have grown especially weary of their kids’ comedy acts, McCabe suggests, could gently “provide an opportunity for self-correction”: “You might say, ‘Ah, yes, that’s like a joke where I said this,’ and tell a funnier version of it.” But she also encourages parents to simply laugh along with their kids through their bad-jokes phase. After all, she laughs, they figure it out eventually.