“Why did the Chicken cross the road?”
“To get to the other side!”
It’s simple, straightforward, and so well-know as to be a cliche. It has spawned a number of related jokes:
“Why did the turkey cross the road?”
A) “Because it was the chicken’s day off!” B) “Because he was stuck to the chicken!” Both are common answers here, and both rely on knowing the chicken joke first to be anywhere on the same continent as actual humor.
The problem with cliches, as George Orwell points out in his essay “On Politics and the English Language,” is that we stop thinking about them and what they actually say. We rely on the chicken joke as short-hand for really bad, groan-worthy humor (see Fozzie Bear of the Muppets) without stopping to ask “wait, why is this even considered a joke?”
The fact is, it isn’t a joke. Not really. If we asked “why did Doug cross the road?” the answer is obvious, and the same as in the chicken joke. There’s really only one reason anyone or anything crosses a road, and that’s “to get to the other side.” So why a chicken? Because chicken is a fun word to say, and the image of a chicken is sloppy shorthand for funny (you don’t see many rubber sheep or ducks, do you? But the rubber chicken? Another comedy cliche). Don’t ask me why chickens are funny, but they are.
And therein lies the secret of the chicken joke. Like most simple question-based jokes, it contains a set-up and a punchline. The set-up typically contains a question, designed to stump the listener (How is a raven like a writing desk?), and the answer to the question is the punchline, where the terrible pun or unexpected surprise is. The chicken joke flips the script on this formula, while still operating within it: the only thing remotely funny about it is in the set-up, the fact that it contains a chicken. This fact primes the listener for an unusual answer–something about “poultry in motion” for instance– which never happens. We get the most mundane answer possible, instead.
It’s actually a subtle form of irony: jokes rely on the listener knowing how jokes work and create an expectation for the punchline. The chicken joke subverts that expectation, by presenting n odd question with a mundane answer. It is not the answer we expect, because the chicken (forgive my mixed metaphor) is a red herring. Humor is about subverting expectations, and the chicken joke takes this to another level, subverting the very expectations of the medium it is being presented it. There’s no pun, no groan-inducing word-play or nonsensical answer, just the simple statement of the obvious.
The chicken joke deserves more respect. It seems stupid, ridiculous, cliched. But there’s a lot more going on once you actually examine it. It is one of the simplest, and possibly oldest, forms of meta-humor. It is a joke not about chickens and roads, but about jokes themselves.