“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.”