Knock-Knock, 1936-Infinity

These trying times require a little levity, so how about a knock-knock joke?

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Cows go.

Cows go who.

No, silly; cows go ‘moo.’

I understand if this punchline elicits an eye roll. That’s perfectly natural. Very few knock-knock jokes go beyond the hackneyed and/or juvenile. Yet the format endures. And that speaks volumes about the nation itself.

No one knows for sure where knock-knock jokes themselves originate. Some point to the drunken porter in 1606’s Macbeth, who responds to a knock with “Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub?” — and others point to the comparatively more contemporary 1929 children’s game “Buff,” which went like so, “Knock, knock! Who’s there? Buff. What says Buff? Buff says Buff to all his men, And I say Buff to you again,”  but the knock-knock joke proper didn’t appear until 1930s, as the Great Depression pressed down upon millions, as the ground seemed to fall out from beneath the United States. And once started, the farce spread like wildfire.

By 1936 knock-knock jokes were ubiquitous, appearing on radio shows high and low, in saloons and townhouses, in newspaper advertisements— “Knock! Knock! Who’s there? Don. Don who? Don forget to do your shopping at the Cash and Carry” and, for a roofer: “Rufus is the most important part of the house.” — and even at the end of newspaper bridge games. Everyone and their mother was a comedian.

But seriously, folks, knock-knock jokes were maddeningly inescapable at the time: One exasperated newspaper commentator griped in 1936, “Let us hope that soon I will be able to meet you on the street and ask if you know Gladys and you will say Gladys who and I will say Gladys Zellitsover,” while another observed, “You can’t turn the radio on anymore without getting one of the Knock-Knock gags.” Social scientists E.S. Bogardus and L.L. Bernard were more biting with their criticism, writing in 1937, “The people most likely to take up these pointless games in an enthusiastic way are those folk who like to appear smart and bright by exhibiting a pseudo-intellectual activity.” 

Yet enthusiasts no doubt outnumbered haters: knock-knock fan clubs formed in places like Iowa and Illinois, and big band leaders increasingly incorporated the jokes into their sets. One performer, Vincent Lopez, actually released a record called “The Knock-Knock Song:”

“If you know how puns are made

Then you know how this is played.

On your mark! Get set to go!

Knock, knock, knock! That’s the phrase.

You got to find words to get the craze.”

The AP was bemused when it reported on the apparent knock-knock fad in 1936, “[Knock-knock] may be because of elation over better times, or just plain goofiness, but whatever it is, even psychologists haven’t a word for it.” Perhaps “resiliency” is good one: because the proliferation, perpetuation and longevity of these garden-variety wisecracks speaks to not only the nation’s durability: our tendency to adapt to changing times and continue our plodding march into tomorrow. And that’s no joke.

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