Everyone has heard the joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?” with the classic answer, “To get to the other side.” Most people think of it as the quintessential ‘anti-joke’, a joke that messes with your expectations by delivering an answer that is not a punch-line.
But there is an interpretation of this joke in which the answer IS a punch line. ‘To get to the other side’ can be interpreted as a play on words. This joke does not have to be an anti-joke. Now, I am not here to say that either interpretation is ‘correct’, but I do want to explore why so many people are quick to accept the first interpretation, that of the ‘anti-joke’.
To Get to the Other Side
For those who don’t understand the punch-line, like any joke, the answer ‘To get to the other side’ is a play on words.
Think about a spiritual medium who is trying to contact spirits and ghosts. They are trying to contact people…wait for it…..on the other side. The spirit world, the realm of the dead, the afterlife, very commonly referred to as ‘the other side‘. So when the chicken crosses the road…..it could be trying to get to the other side, by getting run over and entering the realm of the dead. This joke uses a play on words, two different understandings of the same phrase to create two different meanings that are both valid.
There are a surprising number of people who don’t interpret the joke this way. Why is that? Is ‘the other side’ really such an obscure term? Admittedly the phrase was much more popular back in more superstitious times, but it does not seem to be that unused in modern culture. Is it really that hard to get? I have a theory for why many people don’t ‘get’ this joke.
Children and Jokes
Especially when we are children, hearing and telling jokes can be a complex social exercise. Whether or not someone gets a joke can be interpreted as a measure of their intelligence. Children know that when their peers are laughing, and they cannot understand why, that there is something their peers understand that they do not. Because fitting in is such a compelling motivator, children may pretend to understand jokes simply to fit in, and be considered equal to their peers. So, the optimal response is to laugh along with your peers.
Now we take into account the anti-joke. The joke with no punch-line. Children use this type of joke as a test. If you laugh at the joke you are revealed to be a faker. The optimal response when one does not understand a joke changes with the introduction of these types of jokes. Pretending is no longer the best course, because you risk being revealed as a faker if it is an anti-joke. In admitting you do not understand the joke you still run the risk of seeming unintelligent if it is a real joke. When you do not understand the joke, the only outcome in which you are not vulnerable, is if you correctly identify the joke as an anti-joke. Thus, when one does not get a joke, the most optimal outcome is that it is an anti-joke. And so, due to desirability bias, we are predisposed to believing that jokes beyond our understanding are anti-jokes.
And thus, more likely to dismiss ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ as an anti-joke.
Things Not Understood are Easily Dismissed
Most people probably heard this joke as children. Most children probably do not understand the double meaning in the phrase ‘the other side’. And so when most children hear and/or tell the joke, they do not perceive that there is anything to get about this joke. It is dismissed as an anti-joke.
When we grow up, we have no incentive to think any deeper about the joke. It is already established in our minds as an anti-joke. It has already been dismissed as having no meaning. It is nonsensical to look for meaning where, by definition, there is none. Even though the joke is not hard to understand, few people reach that level of understanding on their own, because few people find it worth thinking any harder about.
I personally am of the belief that the ‘true’ interpretation of the joke is that of the chicken trying to kill itself. To me, the phrasing and context of the joke aligns much to perfectly with this interpretation to be coincidence. But, as I found, even the Wikipedia article does not acknowledge this interpretation. So I am not here to say which is the ‘right way’ to interpret this joke.
In researching this topic, I found people a lot more opinionated on this subject, including myself, than was warranted. Some people know and understand the second meaning, refuse to acknowledge it, and stick to their interpretation of the anti-joke as the correct interpretation. Others who have discovered the second meaning see it as the obviously correct interpretation. But it’s a joke. Why does anyone care if one person interprets it one way and another person interprets it another way?
I think the reason people care so much goes back to the original psychological problem of the joke that children perceive when they are young. If you didn’t get it, you are not smart. People who hold to the anti-joke belief do not want to think of themselves as ‘unintelligent’ for not having gotten the joke on their own. So they deny the idea that any deeper interpretation of the joke is valid. People who ascribe to the second interpretation, see themselves as smart for having ‘gotten’ the joke. They do not want to give up that feeling of superiority over those ‘plebs’ who still don’t get the joke.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. The joke is so old, no one can know its ‘original’ meaning, so the ‘original’ meaning is not relevant to the discussion. Both interpretations make sense, so there is no obviously ‘right’ interpretation. Getting emotionally attached to one interpretation or the other is ultimately childish. (I admit to having to overcome a slight bit of childishness on this ‘issue’ while writing this blog post. But huzzah, I have grown as a person and can now accept other people’s viewpoints on the subject of why the chicken crossed the road.)
Some Interesting Arguments
Since this is a blog about deeply explaining things that need no explanation, I would like to share some of the interesting arguments I found in the debate over which is the correct interpretation of the ‘Why the chicken crossed the road?’ joke.
One of the most convincing arguments I found for the anti-joke side, aimed at finding the ‘original’ meaning of the joke. Under the basis that the ‘original’ interpretation is the correct one. (The implication of thinking of the ‘original’ interpretation as the correct interpretation means that the intention of the creator of the joke is perceived as more relevant than the intention of the teller of the joke.) This argument cited Wikipedia, in saying that the earliest known printed iteration of the joke was in 1847. It would have existed in oral tradition for much longer. In those times, cars did not exist, and the typical road was not so heavily trafficked that crossing one at any given time was likely to result in death. There were millions of more efficient ways in those times for a chicken to willingly enter the great beyond. So it is nonsensical for the original interpretation of the joke to mean that the chicken was trying to kill itself by crossing a road.
My counter argument is that roads have existed since ancient times. And in largely populated areas, roads have always been heavily trafficked with horses, pack animals, carriages and carts. Especially in the times leading up to the car, roads were probably still exceedingly dangerous with all the traffic. Also, not nearly as well regulated as the roads of today. People probably just drove every which way, not watching for pedestrians at all. I can see this joke coming about as a way for parents to teach their children not to cross streets willy nilly. “You want to be like that chicken in the joke, little Pete? And up on the other side with your dear departed nan? I didn’t think so.”
Got any other good arguments for either side of the debate? As long as you are civilized, I would love to hear them!