I remember the first time one of my children made a joke. My eldest daughter was barely a year old. She placed an empty bowl, with firm deliberation, upside down on her head, and said, “Hat?”
Now they all groan at what they have identified as “dad jokes.” Or as the youngest one syllogises, “Dad jokes are bad jokes. Are all bad jokes dad jokes?”
I love that they want to talk about comedy, about how it’s made. The middle one asked me, “What makes a joke a joke?” We worked it through together:
A joke is a joke if:
a. You meant it to be funny; AND
b. Someone else takes it to be funny.
If b. but not a., it’s probably not nice to laugh.
Corollary: if b. but not a., you as the (non)joker reserves the right to later use it as a joke, on purpose.
If a. and not b., it is probably not a good joke (unless your Dad tells it, in which case his judgement is gold).
If a. AND b., it’s officially a joke.
Humor and child development are like this. Sorry, you can’t see my fingers stuck together.
When your child suddenly finds peek-a-boo hilarious, you know that they’ve crossed a cognitive threshold: object permanence has moved into place. The child understands that it’s you, still existing, behind your hand, and finds your futile attempt to hide hilariously pathetic.
At least, that’s how I understand it.
Later, as verbal and logical functioning revs up to higher levels, more sophisticated jokes, based on discrepancies between facts and perceptions, come into play.
I knew a 10 year-old who found this joke so brilliant she repeated it with maddening regularity: “Two muffins were sitting in an oven. One said, ‘Is it getting hot in here?’ The other said, ‘Oh my god! It’s a talking muffin!'” That one stayed funny for a while.
Now in my house we’re going meta, discussing joke mechanics.
And just last week my oldest, now 13, left a note for my on top of the dinner dishes:
Hurrgh rurg arrook (Wookie for “I love you”).
Not as good as the one about the hat, but how could you top that?