Q. Why did the chicken cross the road?
A. To get to the other side.
Chances are you’ve heard this joke a million times – I certainly have. It’s the classic children’s joke – utterly daft, amusing because it’s pointless. It sets up an expectation of an unexpected punchline, but then no.
There are million of daft jokes out there – “How do you know if there’s an elephant in your fridge? Footprints in the butter.”, “What’s yellow and very dangerous? Shark infested custard”, “What’s brown and sticky? A stick” and so on. I love these jokes. They’re not particularly big or clever or witty or erudite, but they make me smile, and sometimes laugh.
Except that the chicken crossing the road joke turns out to something quite different. I have told this joke for probably 40+ years, and it has never once in that time – nor in any else I have spoken to – even occured to me that it has a second, etic, level of meaning.
Until I saw these tweets:
OMG I’ve *just* got the “cos he wanted to reach the other side” punchline to “Why did the chicken cross the road?”. WTF you guys?
— Kat Sommers (@dogwinters) September 7, 2017
Like Kat (and incidentally, I’ve no idea who she is – that’s twitter for you), my jaw dropped. The Other Side. The joke is actually about death!
Of course it is. It’s obvious. Staring you in the face. After all, How many other “crossing the road” jokes are about getting squashed, or at least the dangers of roads?
Q. Why did the hedgehog/squirrel/turkey/frog/… cross the road?
A. To visit his flat-mate.
A. To show what he was made of.
A. To prove he had guts.
A. To prove he wasn’t chicken
I’ve always understood these other jokes in that way (or at least felt like there was some trick I was missing)… why did it never once even occur to me that the original chicken joke is along the same lines? These are quite clearly gross being run-over jokes, so why shouldn’t the original be? The answer, of course, is that I attached an interpretation to the joke the first time I heard it – “to get to the other side of the road”, and I didn’t realise that I had made this interpretation or assumption, let alone reconsidered or revisited it. It’s not that I considered and dismissed an alternative interpretation, it’s that it never even crossed my mind as a possibility, and likely never would had not an external factor intervened.
This then becomes (for me at least) an example par excellence of interpretative blindness. We have not only failed to interpret something correctly, we didn’t even realise that we’ve made an interpretation, and that other interpretations may be possible. For a children’s joke this isn’t a big deal, but when you look at politics, culture, or indeed the Bible, suddenly it matters a great deal. When Jesus tells a parable, we may interpret it as normative (this is, it is establishing a norm for behaviour – how we should be going about things). What if it is actually descriptive? Could Jesus be saying “we all know the world is like this – make sure you’re not being as silly as this example”? The massive danger is that we don’t even realise that we are interpreting it a certain way. So we neither question or own understanding, nor can make sense of anyone who comes at it from a different angle. It’s not that we realise we haven’t got the joke – we think we have got it, but have actually missed the point altogether.
This recast joke also demonstrates a paradigm shift beautifully. Paradigms are the way we make sense of the world, how we see and understand it. They are our mental models. A paradigm shift happens when our understanding changes in a radical, irreversable way – that once our viewpoint has changed, we can never again go back to our original understanding. You might describe it as a light-bulb moment, I suppose. In the case of the chicken joke, I (and now you – sorry!) can never again understand this as a joke simply around an animal trying to cross a street. It will forever more be a dual joke, with two meanings. When there is a paradigm shift, we realise that our previous model was incomplete, and now our understanding has grown and developed. It’s a bit like Harry Potter – you think you understand a given character’s role and motive, but at the denouement it’s all turned on it’s head, and you suddenly understand Snape was actually trying to save Harry (or whatever). So when you re-read the passage again, you know understand what was actually happening. Your original interpretation has been proved wanting.
The ultimate example of this is Jesus – nobody conceived that God’s great Messiah would be born in obscurity, and executed by the Romans. Yet if you read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, this great paradigm shift occurs, when you see that Jesus is actually fulfilling the prophecies and promises. Just not in the way anyone expected. And people today I think still struggle to understand Jesus (not helped, it must be said, by the Church a lot of the time), but perhaps not even realising there is something to understand.
Who would have thought that all this could come from a 13 word kids joke!