The Paradox of Children’s Humor

This is a historical post.

So my wife says, “oh, I saw a funny shirt today.” My wife loves to share funny things she heard or saw. The shirt said “I’m right 93% of the time and who cares about the other 4%”

My kindergartner starts to laugh and then says, “Hey, I know a funny shirt too.” So she tells us about a shirt that we already bought for our son months ago that has a picture of a rock and a ruler. The Ruler is saying “You Rock!” and the Rock is saying “You Rule!”

After repeating it to us, she then proceeds to say about 10 times in a row. “Get it? The Rock is saying you rule to the ruler and the ruler is saying you rock to the rock. Get it?”

We all bust up laughing and she is happy. But the thing is that it’s not funny because of the “funny once” rule. You can’t actually repeat a funny joke multiple times and expect to get the same laugh each time. So why are we laughing? It’s real laughter too.

Well, of course, it’s because our daughter is hilarious precisely because she doesn’t “get it” that she isn’t funny. Thereby making her funny. So she’s funny because she’s not funny. It makes no sense, so of course it makes perfect sense.

2 Replies to “The Paradox of Children’s Humor”

  1. I disagree. I still laugh at the same jokes when I hear them again. The “funny once” rule, if it’s a rule, seems like no rule to me. Why do I watch Ricky Gervais stand up over and again and continue to laugh after the 5th time knowing the punchlines?

    There might be a rule. But it cannot be “once”. I think it’s far more complicated than all that. It really is funny to your daughter and not for the reason you think. There may not be an easy to articulate reason. But she is *correct* to laugh because it is funny *to her* on the 5th or even 10th occasion. And it can be said to be objectively funny (but for inexplicit reasons). Which means it should be laughed at. Now why it becomes unfunny to some people after the nth repeat is difficult. But it cannot be because of some “funny once” rule. Because that’s false. Refuted by experiment. Which you yourself saw conducted! 🙂

    1. I first encountered the term “funny once rule” in a novel many years. Perhaps it’s fallen out of use by now.

      I agree with you that — if taken as a universal law — my own anecdote (as well as the ones you just gave) refute it. But I don’t think it was ever intended (or for that matter usually understood) as a universal law. It’s actually expressing a heuristic that you can’t just repeat a joke and have it be funny multiple times. Clearly, that is not *always* true or else you couldn’t rewatch funny movies years later.

      You’re also right that the truth is far more complicated. You actually can rewatch a funny movie — even the next day — and still find it funny if you are, say, watching it with a new audience and you’re enjoying their reactions. Their laughter is infectious so you may also find the same sequences funny again even though it violates the ‘funny once rule.’ That’s also why it’s still ‘funny’ to tell the same joke multiple times but to a different audience each time. You can still find it funny to watch the new audience find it funny.

      However, as a heuristic, it expresses something correct that is hard (as you pointed out) to put into a good explanation. It’s usually used as a way to explain to someone — probably a child but sometimes an adult — why their jokes are falling flat and how to correct it so that they can enjoy their jokes better. You’re the first person I’ve seen to have ever taken that ‘rule’ so literally. Usually people just ‘get’ what you are saying, namely that they need to find a new audience for their jokes and it will be funny again due to the new audience. It’s good advice, not an iron-clad law.

      Also, I totally agree with you that the funny once rule can’t possibly mean that my *daughter* shouldn’t find a joke funny however often she cares to. The post is actually exploring the question of why *I* found the joke funny 10 times in a row even though, if she had been an adult, I’d have not found it funny.

      It’s tempting here to say something like “I found it funny because she was so cute.” But the truth is that ‘cute’ isn’t the same as funny. So that can’t really be the answer. I am honestly not sure why I found it so funny. I’m guessing maybe it’s because it’s funny to watch a child not quite understand an adult social rule, but honestly I’m not sure if I’m actually right about that or not. All I know is that it was sincerely quite funny and even I’m not quite sure why. That’s interesting to me.

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