There are many humor theories but humor is so multidimensional that it is difficult to cover all its angles and facets with one of them only. People find funny various things in different circumstances. For example, some individuals tend to laugh when they are tickled, and they consider it amusing to see someone slip and fall. Babies smile widely and laugh when adults play simple hide-and-seek concealing themselves behind a book. Teenagers play tricks on their friends by making practical jokes. Adults engage themselves with more complex comedies and comic TV shows. At the same time, an increased interest in silly YouTube videos reveals that cute kittens and people falling into water or doing a drunken dance is amusing for people of all ages. One of the subgroups of the comic genre is knock-knock jokes which do not fall into the category of the Superior Theory and Relief Theory. The present essay is going to examine the concept of knock-knock jokes through the Incongruity Theory, Incongruity-Resolution Theory, and Surprise Theory.
Incongruity is one of the foundations of humor. Hearing the beginning of a joke, people have an expectation of how it might end, and it creates a comic effect when the punch line is unanticipated. The underlying principle of all knock-knock jokes is that an individual makes a knocking sound as if knocking on the door and hears a question ‘Who’s there?’ He or she answers with a one-word sentence that, in the second answer, turns into something completely unexpected. For example,
– Knock-knock – Whose there? – Bean. – Bean who? – Been a while since the last time I saw ya!
The basic theoretical premise in the stated joke is that the opponent does not know what to anticipate or waits for something similar to a name. In the end, it creates an incongruity between what is awaited and what is delivered.
In Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams stress that it is not enough to point out an incongruity (47). One should explain why and how it works. It is easy to imagine many inexpedient things and events but not all of them create a comic effect. Immanuel Kant was the first to make up the incongruity theory. He held it that people consider something amusing when their expectations are not met. As has been said earlier, all knock-knock jokes are following a formulaic structure when the opponent is aware of what he or she should ask but is not sure what the response will be. Therefore, in a knock-knock joke, individuals experience the anticipation and wonder what Bean refers to. One thinks that there is nothing particular about being called ‘Bean. It is somewhat unusual but it can happen in a joke. However, the punch line shows that one is wrong and people’s expectations have been false.
It must be stated that incongruity alone is not enough for making a joke. For example, someone’s sudden sickness or death are very unexpected events; nevertheless, they are not amusing. Yet, it does not mean that the Incongruity Theory fails. Rather, it has revealed that it needs improvement and polishing. Hurley et al. remark that a good joke needs “some kind of context in which an incongruity turns into a humorous circumstance” (49). The revised version of the Incongruity Theory has adopted “resolution by reason” where “the incongruity exists between the setup of a narrative and the punch line” (Hurley et al. 49). However, it does not necessarily have a humorous effect. For instance, if a person gets sick, and the doctors are unable to find out a cause, it is an inconsistency. If the doctors stumble upon a sudden explanation in a medical journal, it is a resolution but not a funny one (Hurley et al. 50). As a result, the authors offer to introduce the concepts of “non-replacement and diminishment” saying that in a joke “the new interpretation and the old must both be valid rather than the new one forcibly supplanting the older one” (Hurley et al. 50).
If one looks at the joke provided in the illustration, one will see that it meets the criteria. The exchange “– Bean. – Bean who? – Been a while since the last time I saw ya!” shows that the meaning does not offer anything new and does not replace anything. Nonetheless, it does suggest a new interpretation of the sounds. Taken separately, the elements of the joke are not funny, but when they are combined together, they excite and make people laugh. Hurley et al. explain it by the introduction of different scripts (50). The knocking sound evokes a typical everyday scenario of answering the door, but the punch line reveals that the story is different. Hurley et al. say, “These opposing scripts are what make the joke funny because both can’t be invoked at the same time” (Hurley et al. 50).
The reason why the knock-knock jokes are still popular among some people (because it should be admitted that not everyone finds them funny, and some think they are outright dumb) is that they offer nonsense humor. The human brain is programmed to spot logic and act logically. At the same time, people can appreciate a certain breach of logic and find it amusing. The essence of the knock-knock joke is not its specific content but rather a violation of people’s expectations. One should consider the next illustration of the idea that goes, “– Knock-knock! – Who’s there? – Banana. – Banana who? – Knock-knock! – Who’s there? – Banana. – Banana who? – Knock-knock! – Who’s there? – Orange. – Orange who? Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” The comic relief is in the play of words when instead of ‘orange’ as the fruit it sounds like “Aren’t you” said with a thick Southern accent.
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Lastly, the kind of jokes under consideration is based on puns. The first part of the pun sounds as if it has been misplaced, but its explanation reveals that it has been done on purpose. Puns are both examples of incongruity and non-replacement when nothing radically new is said but what is stated shows that the listener has guessed wrongly. Here is another case of a pun: “– Knock-knock! – Who’s there? – Catch. – Catch who? – God bless you!” The pun is in the similar sounds in ‘catch who’ and ‘achoo’ which invokes a polite response of ‘bless you’.
Continuing exploring the nature of the comic, one can move further and try to explain why both the incongruity and puns are funny. In general, Hurley and his colleagues explain that humor is not possible without an element of surprise. As has already been mentioned, people have expectations, and they react to different scripts. When a joke surprises them with an unanticipated punch line, that is where laughter is born, and people agree that it was amusing. Yet again, there are many unexpected things that occur in humans’ lives daily, and they are not funny in the least. However, when people come across something they expected not to happen because they awaited something else to take place instead, that creates a comic effect.
Summing up, it can be said that the knock-knock jokes are funny because (or when) they offer sudden and unexpected scripts that surprise people and betray their anticipations. A play on words turns something sounding rather silly into a completely normal sentence, and a difference between an intention and an expectation makes people laugh. Thus, the Incongruity-Resolution and Surprise Theories can be applied to the knock-knock jokes to better understand their nature.