The Unexpected Origins of Four Very Famous Jokes

You can thank Prohibition for knock-knock jokes
The Unexpected Origins of Four Very Famous Jokes

Certain jokes feel timeless, but even if the earliest cavemen were ribbing each other around the fire about their mamas, it’s not like they were encoded in our DNA the moment we emerged from the ooze. Someone had to be the first guy to fart when someone pulled his finger. What if we told you that guy was Genghis Khan? It wasn’t (probably), but that would be only a little more surprising than the origins of…

‘Women Be Shopping’

If you’ve ever made fun of gender stereotypes (and you have, because they’re ridiculous), you’ve probably said, “Women be shopping.” If there’s a more concise phrase that better mocks the dismissal of the more-often-dismissed gender, centuries of satirists haven’t found it. And it came from the goddamn Nutty Professor.

For those of you too young to remember, The Nutty Professor was a middling 1996 remake of a remake best known for featuring Eddie Murphy as his entire family in a series of fat suits. That year, clapping your hands and reciting “Hercules! Hercules!” passed for a joke among all the most annoying people. It was a dark time.

But the first known utterance of “women be shopping” is by a character played by Dave Chappelle, as his stance on gender issues has apparently not changed in 30 years. In its original incarnation, the line isn’t so much supposed to be an indictment of gender norms as hack comedians who rely on those norms. It doesn’t even get a big laugh; he says it and then moves right on to making fun of the appearances of women in the crowd. Who would have thought that this would be The Nutty Professor’s biggest contribution to the culture and not a Jerry Lewissance?

Knock-Knock Jokes

It seems like knock-knock jokes would be approximately as old as doors, and that’s sort of true. The phrase “Knock-knock! Who’s there?” actually originates with Shakespeare. It appeared in Macbeth, the first documented use of the phrase, but in the grand tradition of misinterpreting Shakespeare, it wasn’t meant to be funny.

Various sources claim the actual jokes came from children’s games or medieval guards, but according to Charlie Orr (who was president of the National Knock-Knock Joke Club, so it seems like he would know), they arose from the speakeasies of the Prohibition era. Patrons knocked on doors, bouncers demanded credentials, and those whimsical flappers being what they were, the jokes grew from there, he said. He claimed the first knock-knock joke, which was told in a New York bar bathroom, went like this:

“Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Ranger who?”
“Ranger clothes before leaving.”

It’s unclear how he could possibly know that or why it’s barely a joke, casting some doubt on the rest of his claims, but it’s definitely true that knock-knock jokes exploded in popularity throughout the 1920s and 1930s. If Hollywood is to be believed, people in those years only left the speakeasies to go to war.

A ____ Walks Into a Bar’

Considering that the existence of bars is one of the first signs of civilization, it shouldn’t be surprising that bar jokes are super old. How old do you think, though? A few hundred years? A thousand? Try 4,000 years. It was found in the late 1700s on a clay tablet buried deep in Iraq that dates back to Ancient Sumer. That’s approximately as old as the written word, meaning this is one of the first things we did with that. Be proud.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make any sense. The best translation we have that actually bears some resemblance to a joke is, “A dog walks into a bar and says, ‘I can’t see a thing. I’ll open this one.’” Nothing, right? Our best guesses are that it’s a culture-specific pun or a reference to some public figure no one knows about anymore. It’s the same dilemma future people are going to have when they try to figure out why we were so mad at someone called “the orange one.”

‘Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?’

Let’s rip off this Band-Aid: We regret to inform you that asking why the chicken crossed the road is racist. Like so many beloved staples of American culture, it was written in the 1830s or 1840s for minstrel shows. By 1847, it had been published in a New York magazine, popularizing it among those whose family outings didn’t involve dehumanizing people of other races. It was still the 1840s, though, so it was probably, like, public hangings instead.

These days, people like to ascribe all kinds of deeper meanings to “get to the other side,” but originally, the joke served a very specific purpose. It was told by a jester-like character to another who was coded as an authority figure, and the obviousness of the punchline was intended to embarrass the latter when he couldn’t think of it. At that point, the joke-teller was beaten for his disrespect, briefly disrupting but ultimately reinforcing social and racial hierarchies. So… that’s not great. Sorry. Can we interest you in a light-bulb joke?

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