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  • Jon Dusza, News Editor

Shakespeare and a Presidential Election: The History of the Knock Knock Joke

By: Jon Dusza, Managing Editor

Nothing gets an amused exhale out of people quite like a knock knock joke. The simple joke format that we learned as children has been a staple of elementary school lunch tables for our entire lives, and a consistent go-to for dad jokes. But when one really stops to think about the essence of a knock knock joke, they come to a sobering realization: knock knock jokes make no sense. Perhaps a look into the origin of knock knock jokes will shed some light on the meaning of everyone’s favorite type of low-effort joke.

The earliest known example of the “knock knock” format in the English language comes, not surprisingly, from Shakespeare. In his 1606 play, Macbeth, a hungover Porter monologues: “Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty: come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for ‘t. Knock knock! Who’s there, in the other devil’s name?” The Porter continues on in that fashion for a few more lines, repeating the “knock, knock” refrain two more times. 

Admittedly, I have never read Macbeth, so I am not quite sure what is going on there; but, as far as I could find, that is the earliest seed of what would become our beloved joke. While the Porter’s ramblings are not in a joke format, evidently, the combination of words was there.

It took a few hundred more years until the knock knock joke really began to develop further. In the 1930s, however, glimpses of the knock knock joke began to appear in mass media. In July of 1931, the Pampa Daily News of Pampa, Texas, printed an ad that began: “Knock! Knock! Knock! Who’s there? It’s opportunity!” This was not a joke, but it is an early rendition of the familiar line we hear to this day. 

On March 31, 1932, the Lake Elsinore Valley Sun-Tribune of Lake Elsinore, California, printed a joke: “Knock knock. ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Paul Revere.’ ‘What do you want, Paul?’ ‘The British are coming.’ ‘Won’t you come in, Paul?’ ‘No.’ ‘I’m alone.’ ‘To hell with the British.’” A couple of years later, on Nov. 10, 1934, the Associated Press sent out a dispatch that was printed in newspapers all across the country. It read: “‘Knock! Knock! Knock!’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Paul Revere.’ ‘What’s the matter, Paul?’ ‘The towing squad’s coming.’” I am sure that joke landed better in 1934 than it does now. These are the earliest examples of jokes that begin with “knock knock” and “who’s there?” that I could find, although the format was slightly different than the jokes we tell now. It is also interesting that Paul Revere was the subject of both of these jokes. (My guess as to why that is the case is that Paul Revere is probably the most famous door-knocker in American history.)

A little over a year later, in December of 1935, the Daily Illini printed the following: “‘Knock, knock, knock,’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Chester–’ ‘Chester who?’ ‘Chester Gigolo!’” As with the last joke, I am sure it was funnier in 1935, but this is significant. This is the earliest knock knock joke that I have found using the modern knock knock joke format, featuring a “who’s there?” before the punchline. This could very well be the first knock knock joke. The Daily Illini followed that joke with the following comment: “And that’s the type of lousy stuff we get when we open the contrib box. Is it any wonder that we tear out our hair?” On behalf of The Griffin, I can say that that will also be our reaction if we are sent any knock knock jokes with the intent of getting them published (although that could change if the joke is good enough).

The world changed during the summer of 1936 when the knock knock joke suddenly became, almost overnight, the institution it is today. It all came about from a presidential election. In 1936, Kansas Governor Alf Landon won the Republican nomination to be president, having been chosen by Republicans to run against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Governor Landon’s initial choice to be his vice president was well-known Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenburg. Vandenburg declined. If Vandenburg had accepted, knock knock jokes likely would have never existed. With Vandenburg declining, Landon turned to newspaper publisher Frank Knox. Landon and Knox lost that election in what is considered to be the biggest landslide election in American history, but Knox would live on in the heart of every American, whether the American people knew it or not. 

In mid-June of 1936, a radio station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania began to tell jokes on air using Knox’s name. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:45 p.m., fortunate listeners to WKBO in Harrisburg could hear radio host Dick Redmond riff on the hottest pop culture trend of 1936 — the knock knock joke. Word got out, and from there, the knock knock joke became a national phenomenon, as a play on Frank Knox’s name.

According to the database, which holds hundreds of millions of digitized newspapers from the 1700s to today, 6,110 American newspapers in 1936 had knock knock jokes printed in them. That is more than the total number of papers with knock knock jokes in them in all the years of American history up to that point combined — and it is not particularly close, either. No single year after that came anywhere near the total number of knock knock jokes in newspapers as 1936, although they remained. It is hard to imagine how incredibly popular knock knock jokes became in 1936. A song recorded by Ted Weems and his Orchestra called “Knock! Knock! Who’s There?” reached #8 on the 1930s equivalent of today’s Billboard Top 100. The song is just a series of knock knock jokes set to music.

From then on, the rest is history, which leads us to today. And while the golden age of knock knock jokes is likely behind us, we can still count on them to be a good option for low-effort comedy.

I wrote at the beginning of this article that I hoped that learning about the origin of the knock knock joke would shed some light on what exactly knock knock jokes mean. To be honest, I do not think that the origin story really does that. But knock knock jokes are still as good a platform to make puns on as they were in 1936, and if that is all they are, that is just fine. A pun never hurt anybody.

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