The history of knock-knock jokes spans Shakespeare plays, castle guards, and parlor games, and the call-and-answer format has landed itself a permanent place in the ranks of American humor.
First, let’s take a look at Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The audience hears a rapping sound. Enter the porter, stage right.
Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the
key.(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’
th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat
for ’t.(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’
other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator
that could swear in both the scales against either
scale, who committed treason enough for God’s
sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,
equivocator.(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s
there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for
stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here
you may roast your goose.(Knock.) Knock, knock!
Never at quiet.—What are you?—But this place is
too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had
thought to have let in some of all professions that go
the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire.(Knock.)
Anon, anon! (Shakespeare, 2.3.1–20)
Who’s there? Three shifty guests, apparently, in the name of the devil. This is the first known use of the knock-knock trope, though it is used in a monologue rather than a joke.
Another potential origin of the call-and-response routine comes from Medieval night watches. When people wanted to enter a castle after night fell, they would have to call to the guards to get inside. A guard would respond “Who’s there?” and engage in a back-and-forth exchange about the person’s identity and purpose for entering the castle. You can imagine that a bored guard or mischievous guest might use this routine to play jokes on one another.
Fast forward to the twentieth century. “Do you know?” jokes began to pick up traction around the year 1900, as described in the Oakland Tribune by Merely McEvoy:
A jokester would walk up to someone and pop a question like: “Do you know Arthur?” And the unsuspecting listener would reply, “Arthur who?” And the jokester would say “Arthurmometer!” and run off laughing. (Weeks)
McEvoy made a poignant observation in his 1922 article: “Jokes, like comets have definite orbits. Most of them travel in ellipses of 20 years.” The “do you know?” type of joke had returned, 20 years later, and this time it had the courtesy to knock.
In the 1920s and 30s, the familiar knock-knock routine we know today took center stage. It may have been popularized by a children’s game called Buff. A veritable knock-knock craze swept the nation as Americans turned to friends, family, and complete strangers with a gleam in their eye, a simple refrain on their tongues: “Knock knock.”
Telling knock-knock jokes became a favored parlor game, knock-knock contests discovered the best and brightest jokesters of the time, and radio stations broadcasted knock-knock jokes inspired by the presidential election—a prime opportunity, since the vice-presidential candidate was Colonel Frank Knox.
By the 1950s, knock-knock jokes had spread across the world, making people groan all over Australia, South Africa, India, England, and other countries. Some used different words for knocking, like “Toc-toc” in France or “Kon-kon” in Korea and Japan. Whether you love them or hate them, it seems like knock-knock jokes are here to stay.
What’s your best knock-knock joke? Remember—you are following in the footsteps of Shakespeare.
Weeks, Linton. “The Secret History of Knock Knock Jokes.” NPR. March 3, 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/03/03/389865887/the-secret-history-of-knock-knock-jokes
Wonderopolis. “Who Invented the Knock Knock Joke?” Accessed October 1, 2020. https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/who-invented-the-knock-knock-joke.
Wood, Jennifer M. “8 Moments in Knock Knock Joke History.” MentalFloss. April 1, 2014. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/55962/8-moments-knock-knock-joke-history.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed on October 1, 2020. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/a-midsummer-nights-dream/.