Think back to the first joke you ever learned to tell, and chances are good that it started out with two simple words: Knock knock. (Chances are also pretty good that it wasn’t very funny.) You may have thought you invented the pun, but its history dates back much, much further than that. Here’s a brief history…
1. THE BARD ABIDES IN 1606.
Though the exact origin of the knock knock joke is officially unknown, many scholars point to the second act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—written around 1606—as the earliest known example. It occurs when a porter is awoken out of a drunken stupor by a man knocking at Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s door.
2. CHILDREN PLAY IN 1929.
In Henry Bett’s 1929 book, The Games of Children: Their Origin and History, the author talks about the knock knock joke as being part of a kid’s game called Buff, in which one child would bang a stick while saying “Knock knock,” to which his or her opponent would ask, “Who’s there?”
3. WRITERS CATCH ON IN 1934.
In 1934, a newspaper columnist used the following (not-so-funny) joke in a story, which marked the knock knock joke’s first published appearance in popular culture:
Rufus the most important part of your house.
4. WHAT’S THIS TURNS TO WHO’S THERE IN 1936.
By 1936, the knock knock joke had made its way to the masses. So much so that an Associated Press article about its growing popularity appeared in the August 3rd edition of the Titusville Herald. Titled “‘Knock Knock’ Latest Nutsy Game for Parlor Amusement,” the piece talked about how “What’s this?” had given way to “Knock, knock” as the favorite parlor game setup. “Gone, apparently, are the days when the more serious-minded settled down to a concentrated spar with jigsaw puzzles, anagrams, intelligence tests, and similar intellectual pursuits,” the author lamented.
5. RAMROD DANK INVENTED IT IN 1936.
On December 30, 1936, humorist/radio host Fred Allen produced a wrap-up of the year’s biggest events in which he included an interview with the fictional Ramrod Dank, whom he deemed “The first man to coin a knock knock.”
6. KNOCK KNOCK GOES INTERNATIONAL IN 1953.
By the 1950s, the knock knock joke had gained popularity around the world, in both English-speaking countries (England, Ireland, Australia, Canada) and otherwise (France, Belgium, India). French versions of the joke started out with “Toc-Toc,” and the punchline was typically a song title. In Afrikaans and Dutch, it’s “Klop-klop” and “Kon-kon” in Korean and Japanese. In Spanish, the joke usually rhymes. In South Africa in 1953, the following joke was popular amongst school children:
Delores my shepherd.
7. LAUGH-IN DOES KNOCK-KNOCK IN 1968.
Knock knock jokes were a staple of the banter on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from the very first season of the sketch comedy show’s six-season run.
8. GEORGE ZIMMERMAN’S LAWYER GETS IN ON THE FUN IN 2013.
“At considerable risk… I’d like to tell you a little joke,” George Zimmerman’s lawyer, Don West, told the jury during opening statements. Then proceeded to unleash the following bit:
George Zimmerman who?
Alright good. You're on the jury.
Crickets would have been an improvement over the reaction the “joke” got.