Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Who's There?"

Any adult who has worked with young children for any length of time has taken part in a session of knock-knock jokes. Perhaps we have even started it, offering up an example of the type:

Who's there?
Canoe who?
Canoe shut the door, I'm getting cold!

And you get a laugh, every time, even if they've heard that particular joke a dozen times. Then they tell their own jokes, mimicking your pattern, but usually ad libbing:

Who's there? . . .

There is often a pause as they search their brains or their environment for something, usually anything:

Chair who?

Then another pause, before:

Chair table!

And then we laugh, all of us, together, louder with each re-telling, with each nonsensical punchline. And it can go on and on, never failing to end in laughter. Sure, some might call it false or forced laughter in the sense that it isn't the sort of spontaneous or "involuntary" laughter one experiences, say, during a good stand-up act, but it is, nevertheless, real laughter. It is the laughter of mathematics and community. Children laugh at knock-knock jokes, not because the punchline has surprised them the way a comedian's joke does, but rather because they take joy in working a simple give-and-take equation, one that always adds up to a laugh, one that always requires at least one other person to tell.

Everyone laughs. Perhaps it's also collaborative poetry, the knock-knock joke, a duet that ends in laughter. It never bugs me, it never bores me, because in the end we laugh, forced perhaps, even phony-sounding, but communal: we're laughing together and that's the point. We spend entire circle times just taking turns telling these nonsensical jokes, laughing harder and harder as we go. It's math, poetry and community. That's why we laugh together.

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