On The Humourous Aspects Of Avian Pedestrianism

Funny Subtitle of Article

Fig. 1: There is a reason for this.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

To get to the other side.

The above is a terminally unfunny joke.  It is largely so because it is has to be the most overtold, generic joke in the (English speaking) world.  So much so, that if you were to provide a dictionarian example of a joke for someone unaware of the concept of a joke, you might cite it as an example.  The first thing to come to mind, perhaps.

What’s interesting, however, is that if it were not for its sheer ubiquity, the chicken crossing the road would be quite a clever, subversive meta-joke.  Allow to me demonstrate, and thus sap all humour out of the already exhausted joke.

As we all know, humour is generally derived from some form of recognized contradiction.  Dramatic irony, wherein we know something a character doesn’t know, operates on the more sophisticated side of the scale, as opposed to, say, sarcasm.  Slapstick, which may be considered “low” humour, is based on the incongruity of exaggerated, implausible graphic violence and its effects.  A pratfall that results in a broken bone is not really funny, but an exploded cartoon coyote is, so long as he has a goofy look on his face.

Fig. 2: He'll be alright.

In the chicken joke, the contradiction lies in the answer’s deflating of the question’s expectations of some hilarious reason why the chicken crossed the road.  Instead of an “unexpected” punchline (all punchlines are expected to be unexpected), we get the obvious, self-evident explanation that he wanted to get the other side.  The humour largely lies in that it’s not a funny joke at all, and therefore the contradiction is with the concept of humour itself (or at least its conventions).  It is a parody of a joke: a satirization of funniness.

More materially, the punchline is an unsatisfactory, confounding answer which merely begs the question of why did the chicken want to get to the other side.  This begging, however, simply points out that the initial question was wrongly asked, that it failed to differentiate between a vague contextual cause – the crossing of the road was but part of some need to get somewhere – and the reasoning behind why the chicken chose to do so — the larger context.   The question elides the distinction between intent and action, and so the answer corrects this by pointing out their tautological, cause-effect relationship.

Moreover, this begging the question suggests that all actions are ultimately inextricable from the endless chain of causal factors that led up to their actioning.  Further, each action is itself a causal factor in further actions, each also causal factors.  And so on, recursively.

Fig. 3: James Burke knows what I'm talking about.

Ultimately by the repeated deferment of begging the question, the asker is left endlessly asking “Why?” like a small child who refuses to eat to its french fries and keeps asking unanswerable questions about life.

It should also be pointed out that part of the humour also derives from the very implication of intentionality of a chicken.  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Why do chickens do any of the chickenshit they do?  Because they’re chickens and they have no fucking clue what they’re doing! Hell, some of them keep on doing what they do without requiring an attached head.  But of course one would expect, from the very fact that the question was being asked to set-up a punchline, that the chicken would have some specific, no doubt anthropomorphic, reason for crossing the road.

Even if that were the case, as we cannot get inside whatever mind a chicken may have, this reason remains forever undisclosed to us as implicitly pointed out by the unhelpful answer in the punchline.  The joke therefore turns upon the epistemological vagaries that occur in the omniscient third person point of view (such as this joke uses).  It points out that the narrative that the joke aims to construct — the narrative of the chicken crossing the road — is an impossibility.  There is no story, just the singular event of a chicken crossing the road.  Anything other than that is outside the joke.  Il n’y a pas de hors-jeste.

However, the joke also contains an implicit, grim pun which does allude to one possible narrative that could be set up, one which actually makes a pretty good punchline.  The Other Side the chicken gets to could be an afterlife, presumably arrived at upon contact with a motorized vehicle of some kind.  But then too, the idea of chickens going to Heaven or Hell seems kind of silly.


~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on May 28, 2010.

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