Sunday, 28 August 2016

Children’s jokes

A blog post on a 'genre' (is it a genre?) of children's 'text' (is it a text?) little talked about: the joke...

Recently I’ve been thinking about cultural/national differences in children’s jokes. Sometimes kids’ jokes are transnational: like their UK and US friends, French children tell stories about inexplicably elusive fridge elephants and chickens eager to cross roads. But knock-knock jokes, for instance, don’t exist in France. The closest equivalent is the hugely popular ‘Mr and Mrs’ joke. That (intractably heteronormative) riddle always follows the same format:

Monsieur et Madame X ont un fils/ une fille - comment s’appelle-t-il/elle?
Mr and Mrs X have a son/ daughter - what’s his/ her name?

The point, of course, is that when put together, the first name and the family name make up a puntastically funny combination. Some of those riddles are very simple:

M. et Mme Némar ont un fils - comment s’appelle-t-il?
Mr and Mrs Némar have a son - what’s his name?
Answer: Jean (which is a boy’s name in French)
Explanation: Jean Némar = j’en ai marre = I’m fed up.

That’s the funniest thing in the world when you’re 4 years old. For the joke to work, the first names must be real, legitimate first names that exist; however, the family name can be entirely imaginary - in fact, that’s all the better, as it makes the joke funnier. E.g.:

Monsieur et Madame Lacouverturmegratte (Theblanketscratchesme) ont une fille, comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Sandra (= Sans draps, without sheets)
Sandra Lacouverturmegratte = Without sheets, the blanket scratches me.

My sister’s name Agathe (pronounced Agatt) can generate a whole bunch of Monsieur et Madame jokes with an Anglophone twist and some singing required, because Monsieur and Madame De Power, De Blues, or You-undermyskin have all decided to name their daughter thus.

Like knock-knock jokes, Monsieur-Madame jokes can quickly get very sophisticated. Instead of one son or daughter, you might end up with a whole bunch of siblings, some of them twins if necessary, forming increasingly complex sentences:

Monsieur et Madame Versaire ont quatre filles. Comment s’appellent-elles, et que font-elles aujourd’hui?
Mr and Mrs Versaire have four daughters. What are their names, and what are they doing today?
Answer: Elsa, Rose, Laure et Annie.
Elsa, Rose, Laure, Annie Versaire (= elles arrosent leur aniversaire = they’re celebrating their birthday.)

Another thing in France is Toto jokes, which I’m told have an equivalent in the US, Little Johnny. Toto is a cultural character of some importance to French children, being the hero of countless kids’ jokes, all pretty awful. Toto’s central characteristics are that he’s a dunce (un cancre), naive, and a bit sly. E.g.:

Toto says, ‘Miss, Miss, can you get punished for something you didn’t do?’
‘Absolutely not,’ the teacher answers. ‘That would be very unfair.’
‘Phew! I’m glad to hear that, because I didn’t do my homework.’


‘Toto, share your sleigh with your little sister.’
‘I am sharing it! I have it on the way down, she’s allowed it on the way up.’

Maximum hilarity, I know. Toto’s other important characteristic is, of course, that his jokes can be extremely rude, which fills children with endless mirth. So there’s two categories of Toto jokes: those that you can tell your parents, and those you can’t. The latter should only be shared in the playground with friends, giving everyone the delicious frisson of transgression:

Toto’s mum asks him to go out to buy chocolate. He bumps into his friend Myfinger. Together, they walk around their village - they live in the village of Myarse - and Toto forgets to buy the chocolate. He comes home to his very disgruntled mother, who asks, ‘Where have you been?’
‘Sorry,’ says Toto, ‘but I circled Myarse with Myfinger and I didn’t find any chocolate!’

In case you’re wondering: yes, in French too, it would be completely implausible for a friend to be called Myfinger (Mondoigt) - though surprisingly, there is indeed a village called Montcuq (Myarse) somewhere.

There’s also less scatological ones that play to the anti-authority streak in all children:

Auntie Lucie asks Toto, ‘Aren’t you sad that I’m leaving tomorrow?’
‘Yes I am! I’d rather you were leaving today!’


The teacher asks Toto: ‘What does the sheep give us?’
‘What does the hen give us?’
‘What does the cow give us?’

Researching this blog post (serious work, I know), I was stunned by the huge amount of Toto jokes that revolve around homework - a very accurate reflection of the national tradition of imposing frankly stupid amounts of homework to children from a very young age. 

Of course, religion and sex are everywhere in Toto jokes:

A priest, walking in the street, bumps into Toto smoking.
‘Toto! You’re smoking? How old are you?!’
‘Six years old, Father.’
‘That’s much too young to smoke! When did you start smoking?’
‘Just after I had sex for the first time!’
‘What?! And when was that?’
‘I can’t remember, I was drunk.’

And adultery, that other French obsession:

Toto’s mum tells him, ‘Toto, give Auntie Lucie a kiss.’
‘Be a good boy and give her a kiss!’
‘I don’t want to!’
‘Toto! Where are your manners?! Do what I say!’
‘But why not, for goodness’ sake?!’
‘I’m not risking getting punched in the face like Dad when he tried yesterday!’

Etc. Toto jokes are generally unfunny and boring to adults, but I have some tenderness for them as I remember my belly actually hurting from trying not to laugh in class when I suddenly remembered this or that hilarious adventure of our favourite anti-hero.

Toto also lends his name to - I don’t even know what to call it - a joke? A rebus? A riddle? - I’m not sure - let’s say to a kind of doodle that you draw by putting two zeros together, then an ‘equal’ sign, and then a circle around it, saying, as you draw it:

Zero plus zero equals Toto’s head (zéro plus zéro égale la tête à  Toto)

You end up with the following drawing:

Image result for la tete a toto

I have no idea why we do this. It’s not funny (even as a child), it makes no sense, it doesn’t get you anywhere, it doesn’t tell a story, there’s absolutely no point to it - yet weirdly enough, when you find yourself in the vicinity of a child and happen to have a bit of paper and a pen, you’re taken by the irrepressible desire to draw that thing, saying ‘zéro plus zéro égale la tête à  Toto’. I have no explanation to offer.

French children find their jokes and riddles, among other places, in various items of confectionery, the most famous of which is the Carambar. In its classic form, the Carambar is a stick of caramel, though it exists in many other flavours. "Une blague Carambar" (a Carambar joke) is a cultural by-word for a bad joke, a kid’s joke, a silly joke.

Image result for carambar

The tricky thing about Carambar jokes is that, unless you can postpone the Carambar-eating (you can’t, because Carambar is delicious), your teeth get entirely stuck by caramel while you’re trying to tell the joke. Millions of milk teeth and braces are lost each year to Carambars, most of them by children too eager to unlock their jaws in order to tell the joke. 

I’d be VERY curious to hear about other cultures’ or nations’ specific children’s jokes - pray tell! And also, British people, what would you say are the most prominent types of kids’ jokes here? (Knock-knock, etc.) I’d like to do a mirror blog post to this one in French.


Catherine Butler said...

Really fun post. I laughed out loud at the one about Toto smoking...

The Mr and Mrs joke resembles the round at the end of the long-running radio show, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, where they announce late arrivals at the X's ball. E.g., at the Letter-writers' Ball, "Announcing Mrs and Mrs Sincerely, and their young son, Mo Sincerely". (Okay, that was off the top of my head, but you get the idea.)

I suppose the equivalent of Carambar jokes are the ones you get (or used to get?) on ice lolly sticks. They were often riddles, where you could see the question on the bottom half of the stick but had to eat the lolly to see the answer. I don't think they were ever quite such an institution as Carambar, though.

When I was a child there was a fad for "Shut up" jokes, about a cruel mother. "Mummy, Mummy, why do we have to go to France for our holiday?" "Shut up and keep swimming." "Mummy, Mummy, what's for dinner?" "Shut up and get back in the oven." I don't say they were funny, but they existed...

At that time, jokes about "an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman" were also popular. (I trust this is no longer the case.)

Susan Price said...

I always enjoy your blogs, Clementine. Put your name in the title-box!
I'm obviously not an adult because I enjoyed all the Toto jokes and laughed aloud at a couple. - His head is a meme, evidently, an idea which is passed along from generation to generation like a gene. It doesn't have to make any more sense than curly hair does.
Like Catherine, I remember the 'Mummy, Mummy' jokes. "Mummy, Mummy, I don't like Grandma.' - "Well, leave her on the side of your plate."
"Mummy, Mummy, what does 'delinquent child' mean?" - "Shut up, drink your whisky and deal." Many of them were quite funny.

Being a bit older than Catherine, I can remember the Auntie Mabel 'joke' which children in the 60s (as I remember) were obsessed with. It was repeated on every occasion when children met. It seemed to be considered the pinnacle of humour and I remember my peers falling about laughing at it.
There's a pound note on a table in a haunted house. An Englishman goes to take it and a voice says, 'This is the ghost of Auntie Mabel. That pound note stays on the table.' [Repeat for Welshman and Irishman.]
A Scotsman enters. 'This is the ghost of Auntie Mabel. That pound note stays on the table.'
The Scotsman says, 'And I'm the ghost of Davy Crockett. That pound note goes in my pocket.'
What the appeal of this 'joke' was has baffled me somewhat, then and since. I laughed along sometimes, but never understood what I was meant to find funny. It isn't remotely funny (even if you understand that Scotsmen are supposed to love money above all else, which I didn't when I first heard it, and doubt that many other children did either.) - I didn't know who Davy Crockett was, and he doesn't have any relevance, apart from rhyming.
I was faintly interested in the ghost, but it doesn't do anything.
Does anyone know if it's still being told among children - or some variant of it?

Penny Dolan said...

Another fascinating & delightful post, Clementine, and how much need them (and jokes!) in these rather Europhobic times. (ps. Please do put your name in the title, as knowing who's "speaking" on ABBA does encourage readers into the blog.)

Emma Barnes said...

Lovely post. The only Toto joke I recognised was the "not doing homework" one which definitely exists in English too.

Favourite childhood jokes: Why did the chicken cross the road? and the many, many variants...

What's yellow and dangerous?
Shark-infested custard.

What brown and sticky?
A stick.

As well as ice-lolly jokes, there used to be (maybe still are) jokes on penguin chocolate biscuits wrappers, relating in some way to penguins. Very appealing, especially as penguins were particularly yummy biscuits.

Richard said...

I' a great fan of the series joke, a great many of which involve elephants:

How do you get four elephants in a Mini?
-- Two in the front and two in the back.

How do you get five elephants in Mini?
-- Tell the two in the back to move over.

How do you get two whales in a Mini?
-- Go down the M5 and turn right.

How do you know an elephant has been in your fridge?
-- There are footprints in the butter.

How do you know four elephants have been in your fridge?
-- There's a Mini parked outside.

Why do elephants paint the soles of their feet yellow?
-- So they can float unseen, upside-down in bowls of custard.

Why have you never found an elephant in a bowl of custard?
-- The sharks have eaten them.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Argh, I'm discovering all of those way too late - I was away the day this post came out. THANK YOU! all these comments made me laugh a lot. Very useful, too. We had the 'Shut up and...' jokes in French too!

Alex Loomis said...

In the United States, we have a joke that's very similar in form to Toto's head, I remember that in elementary school we would tell it over and over at the bus stop. It goes that "one plus one equals window!" because if you draw it, you get this: