What's so funny? Just ask the children


Even in the schoolyard, the adult world of the White House is a favorite target of ridicule, with the vice president the butt of many jokes.

"Like Dan Quayle said, 'The mind is a terrible thing not to have,' " said 11-year-old Clarissa Wolf of Public School 9 on West 84th Street in Manhattan. She paused for effect. "He should know!"

Although knock-knock jokes, chicken-crossing-the-road jokes and elephant jokes are perennial favorites, more and more children seem to be getting their punch lines from the news, bringing a new sophistication and sometimes a cynical edge to their humor.

"Kids today are so sophisticated, much more than I was as a a kid," said Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, the comic-strip cat. "They don't need jokes explained to them. What makes me laugh makes kids laugh."

Child psychologists say the things children find funny reveal a great deal about their level of development and what is on their minds.

"If they make jokes about authority, it tells us something about what they're thinking," said Dr. Rebecca Edder, a developmental psychologist who is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis. "To the extent they're making jokes about Dan Quayle and not Gorbachev says something about their attitude and how they view those two figures. Gorbachev may be seen to be more serious or sympathetic."

So if, as the experts suggests, jokes are a window to children's thoughts, what's on their minds? Politics, school, eating, parents, dating, friends and, in a minor way, sex.

Informal child-on-the-playground interviews at three New York City elementary schools uncovered these insights: Wayne and Garth, the wacky characters in "Wayne's World," are seen as "really funny," "kind of funny" or "not funny at all."

A joke is just a joke, so one should not be offended if one is the butt of a joke. Garfield the cat is funny because he's cool, lazy, fat and eats a lot. And knock-knock jokes are for "kids," or so say the 11-and-older set, who prefer riddles and story jokes.

"What do you call a bunch of bunnies in a line moving backward?" Bruna Babic, 11, asked a visitor to PS 144, the Jeromus Remsen school, in Forest Hills, N.Y.

"A receding hare line." Bruna had to struggle to maintain her composure amid the giggles.

Now that their children's humor has become more worldly, many adults are proudly passing the jokes on to co-workers and neighbors. At social gatherings, parents have been known to egg on children: "Honey, tell everybody that wonderful joke you know about . . ."

Alex Korman, 9, who attends the Dalton School on East 89th Street in Manhattan, responds on cue. "There's a new movie out I want to see," he said. "It's called: 'Boys in the Hood: The David Duke Story.' "

Not to be outdone, his friend Jake Steinberg, also 9, told this one: "During the New York primary, this little girl asks her father who he's going to vote for, Mickey or Goofy. Her dad says Mickey. When he comes out of the voting booth, the girl asks, 'So did you vote for Mickey?' Her dad said, 'No, I voted for Goofy, but his name was spelled C-L-I-N-T-O-N.' "

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