Definitions

choke the chicken

Why did the chicken cross the road?

"Why did the chicken cross the road?" is one of the oldest and most famous joke riddles still in use in the English language. The most common answer to this riddle is "To get to the other side." When asked at the end of a series of other riddles, whose answers are clever, obscure, and tricky, this answer's obviousness and straight-forwardness becomes part of the humor. Some psychologists believe the riddle's humor comes from the fact that its answer is expected to be funny, but is not.

Origin

This riddle's origin is obscure. Its first known appearance in print occurred in 1847 in The Bonkers, a New York monthly magazine:

...There are 'quips and quillets' which seem actual conundrums, but yet are none. Of such is this: '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!

The joke may already have become widespread by the 1890s, when a variant version appeared in the magazine Potter's American Monthly:

Why should not a chicken cross the road?
It would be a fowl proceeding.

Variations

There are many riddles that assume a familiarity with this well-known riddle and its answer. One class of variations enlist a creature other than the chicken to cross the road. For example, a turkey or duck crosses "because it was the chicken's day off." Another variant: "Why did the dinosaur cross the road?" "Because chickens weren't invented yet." Or: "Why did the duck cross the road?" "To prove he's no chicken."

Punning variations include "Why didn't the skeleton cross the road?" to which the answer is "Because he had no guts," or "He had no body to cross with him." "Why did the chicken cross the road halfway? To 'lay it on the line'." Or one might change the circumstances and the word "side", such as "Why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide."

Another class of variations, designed for written rather than oral transmission, employs parody by pretending to have notable individuals or institutions give characteristic answers to the question posed by the riddle. Variants on this theme are virtually endless.

Some variations work by elaborating on the circumstances of the event described by the joke. "Why did the chewing gum cross the road?" "Because it was stuck to the chicken's feet." Others employ anti-humor by giving a "rational" answer that is also absurd: "Why did the chicken cross the road?" "Because it had no frontal lobe." Other variants go for shock value: "Why did the dead baby cross the road?" "Because it was stapled to the chicken." In the movie Stripes, a reference to the joke occurs in an impromptu marching cadence: "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get from the left to the right!"

The joke is reportedly codified into law in at least one municipality. A Quitman, Georgia ordinance prohibits chickens from crossing the road.

In describing his experiences touring with The Residents on the laser disc documentary 20 Twisted Questions, illusionist Penn Jillette stated that one member of the band told this version: "Why did man invent God? To get to the other side." Here, "the other side" refers to the afterlife.

Further reading

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