[Ads-l] Early Knock-Knock Jokes

Fri Jul 8 18:21:36 UTC 2016

Knock-knock jokes today are considered children's humor, but it turns out that originally they were made by adults, with no special implication of childishness.  They emerged suddenly in June 1936 and were a craze that year, comparable to the "23 skidoo" craze of 1906.  An early account indicates that they originated on WKBO, an AM radio station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (still around, but now featuring religious programming).  It also says the jokes seem to have been inspired by the nomination of Frank Knox as the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States, but the connection is tentative and there is no other evidence supporting it.  

The earliest example I found is from the Pottstown (Pa.) Mercury (June 15, 1936).  Pottstown is a small town about 80 miles east of Harrisburg.  In the following quotation, ellipses are original:

"PASTIME:  The game now being played in parlor and taproom is "Knock, knock" . . . One person knocks on the table and a second says says:  "Who's there?" . . . The reply may be:  "Cecil" . . The other then asks:  "Cecil who?" . . The you'll-agree-it's-a-bit-dumb answer comes back:  "Cecil have music", all of which is a take-off on the name of a song . . Then another one is "Tarzan" . . . With the answer to that one being:  "Tarzan Stripes Forever.""

The next and most informative example is from the Harrisburg Telegraph (June 17, 1936) (ellipses original again):

"Nomination of Colonel Frank Knox to the Vice-presidency seems to have precipitated the current "Knox Drama," which has everybody by the knuckles, voice box and ears.  Dick Redmond and the Radio Roundabouter have been fooling with it on WKBO Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5.45 P.M. . . . Fooling is right.

Perhaps we can try a couple here - just to give you the idea.

You walk up to a fellow's desk or door or porch or else . . . 
You rap firmly.  His cue is "Who's there?" . . . Then you tell him.

Now for a rehearsal.
"Who's there?"
"Cecil who?"
"Cecil have music wherever she goes."

Here's another.
"Who's there?"
Ammonia who?"
"Ammonia a bird in a gilded cage."

This one'll kill you.
"Who's there?"
"Minerva who?"
"Minervous wreck."  (Say that one out loud.)

That'll be enough of that for the day!  Send in a few of your own.  You can play this game far into the night and it is guaranteed tot ax your ingenuity and the patience of your friends."

Early knock-knock jokes were printed in newspapers in Harrisburg and surrounding places.  At the end of July, however, they suddenly moved to national prominence, and they are found throughout the country in August and September.  They began to lose popularity in October, and on Nov. 16, 1936, the Harrisburg Telegraph ran a headline for a story about quiz shows:  "'Knock, Knock' Fad Fades as America Takes New Craze."  However, people continued in lesser numbers to make knock-knock jokes for some time thereafter.  I am not sure exactly when their audience moved from adults to children.

Although there are no further references to Frank Knox as the inspiration for the jokes, he did figure in one popular joke.  It was reprinted in a number of newspapers; here I quote the Edwardsville (Ill.) Intelligencer (Aug. 10, 1936):

"Political version:  Knock, knock!  Who knocks?  Frank Knox!  Frank Knox who?  Frank Knox the New Deal."

John Baker

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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