Why did the Chicken Cross the Road? What’s the Oldest Joke?

(Last Updated On: March 22, 2021)

If you’ve ever been told a joke in your life, you’ve been asked why the chicken crossed the road. You hate the joke, we hate the joke, we know the answer has always been “to get to the other side.” At least it serves as the prime example of anti-humor so if you’re one of those people who has to explain humor, there you go. Also by definition it means “why did the chicken cross the road” is not a joke. As anti-humor, it’s an anti-joke. So keep that in mind if you want to roast someone we suppose. Anyway nobody likes dissecting humor so we’re going to do it. Why did the chicken cross the road?

When Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

While the anti-joke itself is quite old–dating back to at least the 1840s, it’s most definitely not the oldest joke. In 1847 the question appeared in The Knickerbocker, a New York magazine. We’re humans and humans are social creatures; humor in some abstractly unrecognizable form has likely existed as long as we’ve been able to communicate emotion.

“’Why does a chicken cross the street?’ Are you ‘out of town?’ Do you ‘give it up?’ Well, then: ‘Because it wants to get on the other side!’”

But the idea of “humor” comes from ancient Greek humoral medicine, which actually has nothing to do with being funny. Humoral medicine is about balancing your internal fluids, which were thought to control your physical and emotional health. Humors were body fluids. 

If you were wondering when the oldest joke was, many trace it back to the Sumerians in 1900 BC. What do you think was the first joke? Pause a second and see if you can guess.

A fart joke. It was a fart joke

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

There are a lot of theories to humor, let’s see if we can’t apply some of them to chickens crossing the road. One theory surrounds relief; we find things funny because we want to reduce tension or nervousness. Not great for explaining why chickens cross the road, unless chickens also take walks when they’re annoyed at their co-workers making anti-jokes. 

Do chickens joke about people crossing the road? 

The era of Plato and Aristotle gave us theories of superiority. We find things funny as a form of schadenfreude. Things are funny because they are less fortunate or otherwise inferior to us. Considering humanity as a race, we definitely do think ourselves superior to chickens. Also, there’s the common reading that the chicken trying to “get to the other side” doesn’t mean the chicken wants to get to the other side of the street. It could be a pun about death, and the chicken might just be super depressed and wanted to get hit by a car. 

Considering the common college urban legend that getting hit by a campus vehicle means free tuition, maybe the chicken was just buried in student debt. 

Too real, let’s talk about computers instead.

The human brain is super efficient, and it has to manage a lot of stuff. That’s why we have illusions, because sometimes the shortcuts get things cross-wired in our brain. So when we’re communicating, our brains are always trying to figure out what’s going to happen next so we can focus on the most likely outcomes. You’ve probably experienced a less unconscious version of this when you were about to have a conversation you were anxious to have. “I’m gonna say this if they do this but I’ll say that if they do this other thing.” If you want someone else to experience that anxiety, tell them you need to talk with no context.

Anyway, the point is our brains are dedicating power to figuring out where things go. When someone asks “why did the chicken cross the road” (or any other question), we immediately try to figure out the answer. The point of a joke is to catch us off guard on some level, and we might find things funny because the punchline didn’t line up with our subconscious flowchart of the conversation. 

Honestly the chicken probably crossed the road because it knew we would overthink it and talk about it literally 170 years later. Well played.

If chickens are all crossing the street, they all have a place to go, right? See if you know where they went here.



About Kyler 706 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.