USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Joke’
Folk Beliefs

Hands Mean Cancer?

The Main Piece
“If your hand is bigger than your face then it means you have cancer.” After hearing that one usually puts their hand in front of their face and the performer slaps the performee with their own hand.
Background Information
My informant is my roommate, Sarah Kwan. She is an undergraduate at USC and considers herself a hilarious person making people laugh at the jokes she tells. She enjoys telling this joke because she feels it is a “old-school classic.” She can recall when her own friend pulled the joke on her when she was in high school and has used it to prank others ever since. It was a good way for her to make groups of people laugh, although it did not work all the time. Because of its “classic”-ness many people had heard of it and did not find it amusing, however she continues to use it despite naysayers’ attitudes.
This joke was performed in front of me and a couple other of my roommates. Unfortunately, many of my roommates did not particularly enjoy the joke, but it was an ice breaker as we half heartedly laughed at the joke. This may have occurred because of the fact that we were only a couple of weeks into the school year and did not know each other too well.
Personal Thoughts
I felt her attempt to break the ice with this joke had good intentions even if it did not work out the way she expected it to. It also revealed to me the usefulness of a joke and how these joke would get passed down from person to person, not necessarily being told by one another as stories are, but in the way that pranks are pulled on each other, thus creating a chain reaction of jokes or pranks.


Making Fun of the Portuguese (From Brazil)

Title: The Portuguese Joke (from Brazil)

Interviewee: Rafael Blay

Ethnicity: Brazilian

Age: 19

Situation (Location, ambience, gathering of people?): In his room in Webb, with 3 other friends playing video games in the background. It was a Thursday in April, all the work done for the week, so spirits were high. The interviewee sat on his bed to recount some tales and such.

Piece of Folklore:

Interviewee- “You ask a Portuguese person if they have the time. He says yes.”


This joke and all the humor targeted towards the Portuguese seem to speak for itself. The humor is target towards the country that once “owned” them, the country that started them as a colony. This phenomena is common amoung all colonies, much like Americans make fun of British people, and Mexicans make fun of Spaniards. The jokes always seem to center around their people being silly or stupid, and just generally not in touch with the modern day and in touch with the average person. Remaining hatred left from colonialism is probably the reason for that type of humor. And generation to generation, that humor is then passed down and repeated, until you end up with the jokes of today.

Tags: Joke, Brazil, Portuguese


And That’s Why the Bear Lost It’s Tail


“Do you have any Romanian proverbs?”

Well there’s this Romanian story about how the bear lost it’s tail. I don’t remember how it goes, but I remember it, because every time I did something that disappoint my mom, she would look at me and go ‘And that’s why the bear lost its tail’

“Does it have an exact meaning”

It does in Romanian, but that’s how it’s translated–it doesn’t really make the same sense in English.

Informant & Context:

My informant is a student at the university of southern California, originally from Sammamish, Washington and of Romanian descent. She described her family as very Americanized. This proverb originates from a Romanian origin myth about why the bear has no tail.


It’s interesting to me that the informant does not actually remember the story, but simply the title—which has become a proverb in her family (if it was not already one). Aside from that, it doesn’t really have a direct meaning, instead it is more a vague association with shame and disappointment. It sounded like the phrase was used to be comedic—as more of a punch line.

Folk speech

Aggie Joke

“The Aggie Joke would be: How many Aggies does it take to change a lightbulb?

And the answer is: One, plus twelve to turn the ladder.


And this has an interesting context to me because polish jokes were the same, or very similar. For example, in the lexicon of south-side of Chicago, it would be how many “polacks” does it take to change a ladder. That was how people used to take before political correctness. I grew up in Chicago and of course and it was very ethnically divided and intense city like New York, or many other places in the country where a lot of immigrants came, and there were a lot of specific neighborhoods: the Polish neighborhood, the Lithuanian neighborhood, the Italian neighborhood, the Irish neighborhood, and they all had their own Church, and if you were Polish you didn’t walk across a couple of streets to go to the Italian Church and everybody kind of kept in their own little neighborhood or enclave. And back in the day, when I was growing up, of course political correctness had not reared its head, and so it was very common and not really thought much of for people to refer to people of other nationalities in a way that would today be considered horrible. You would never today call an Italian person a “dago”, you wouldn’t call an Irish person a “mick” you wouldn’t call a Jewish person a “kike,” but that was very common back then and nobody thought much of it, so that kind of language is no longer acceptable.”


Informant: the informant was born in Chicago, and attended high school and college there, graduating with a degree in English. After marrying and having one child, she moved to Dallas, Texas where she raised three children with her husband. She is of Irish descent, her father being from Ireland, and her mother was born in Wisconsin after her parents moved from Ireland, and her heritage and tradition are very important to her. She is a grandmother of five children.



To me, it seems like the cultural context of this joke is well-captured by the informant. Aggies, which is a name given to those who attend Texas A&M University, are usually considered to be their own group of people. If you attend A&M, as people refer to it in Texas, you are an Aggie and are now associated with that group of people. There has long been a rivalry between the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, a rivalry that could have given way to Aggie jokes.

It is fitting that the Aggie joke fits that of the Polish joke that the informant, who is seventy-six years old, was used to. The joke was meant to be derogatory toward a specific group of people. Within the context of the informant’s age it was the Polish group, because this was a time in Chicago when ethnic groups kept to themselves and formed groups and lived in the same neighborhoods. Because it is meant to point-out how one group is slow-witted, this joke is especially belittling.

Therefore, in the state of Texas, it is no surprise that such a joke would be made with the Aggies as the subject. This is due to the rivalry with the University of Texas, because it has often been understood that it is harder to get into the University of Texas than Texas A&M, giving way to “dumb Aggie” jokes like this one. To me, this emphasizes how a joke pointed at one group can be changed to target another group, thereby continuing to be popular despite the changing times. Although it is no longer directed at Polish groups, this joke is still able to be told because it points at Aggies, something that is culturally accepted, especially in Texas. This demonstrates how a joke can keep its basic framework but vary in context and change to fit the modern culture.


The Unique Rabbit

The informant is a new professional in post-secondary administration. He lives in New Zealand, but he is originally from Apple Valley, California and went to university at the University of California, Irvine, where he was involved in student affairs and studied computer science. His background is Italian and Polish, and he has 3 older siblings.

This piece is a joke that the informant finds rather corny, but is his sister’s favorite.

“So my sister’s favorite joke is, um…I almost forgot it for a second [laughs]. How do you catch a unique rabbit?”

I don’t know. How do you catch a unique rabbit?

“Unique up on it!”

Okay. Is that it?

“No, there’s more. Uh, how do you catch a tame rabbit?”

I don’t know. How do you catch a tame rabbit?

“Tame way, unique up on it.”

[laughs] Okay, I get it. Very clever.

“I have another joke also. So how do you catch a common rabbit?”

I don’t know, you tell me.

“Common, tame way! Unique up on it.”

Do you know where your sister got the joke?

“Actually, I do. She was on a cross country road trip. So she got super Catholic in college, and so she went on a cross country road trip for, like, something, I don’t remember what. And she learned it from that from one of the other people who was on her bus with her.”


This joke is a very “American” joke in a lot of ways—it’s driven not just by the first punchline, but by how each added part of the joke builds on the original to a final punchline, the culmination of the rest of the joke. The humor is found in punchline rather than in the build up. As is common in Abrahamic cultures, the joke is told in three parts, with the third being the final destination.

The joke also relies on the recipient having a strong grasp of the English language, as each of the punchlines makes use of words that sound vaguely similar—“unique” and “you sneak,” “tame” and “same,” and “common” and “come on.” The first one in particular could be challenging for anyone who is not a native speaker of the language.


The Louvre Heist

The informant is a second year student at the University of Southern California, studying History. He is from Chicago, IL, and he lived abroad in Rome when he was younger. At USC, he is involved with student affairs and television production.

This piece is one of the informant’s favorite jokes.

“A bunch of art thieves are escaping from the Louvre, and they’ve stolen millions of dollars worth of art, and they’re in this van. So they’re chasing down Paris, you know the cops are right behind them, and news camera are watching them, the eyes of the world are glued to these art thieves. And then, they pull into a gas station, and suddenly stop. The police cars pull right up to them, and encircle them, and boom! They caught ‘em.

So the reporters descend on them like vultures on a corpse, and they’re like, “Why didn’t you just get away? You were, you were by far like, you were gonna make it home free, you were not going to get caught, et cetera. The lead ringleader just looks at the reporter and he says [the informant adopts a French accent], “Uh, ve didn’t have de monay for de gas to make de van go.””


This joke has a long, narrative build up compared to a relatively short punchline. While the joke could still be told effectively in a question and answer format, it is clear that the informant gets a lot of enjoyment from setting the stage and describing a more elaborate and vivid setup. The punchline plays on the slight alterations in English pronunciation by native French speakers as well as the play on words—“monay” with “Monet,” “de gas” with “Degas,” and “van go” with “Van Gogh.” The setting contextualizes the joke further, providing the foundation for the French and art references in the joke.



Tomato Joke

Informant: A baby tomato, a mom tomato, and a dad tomato were on a walk, and the mom and dad went aheaad of the baby tomato, and it was left behind, and the papa went over and smashed it and yelled, “Catch up!”

Collector: Where’d you hear that from?

Informant: My friend grace.


Informant is a freshman at the University of Southern California. She is studying Theater Arts in the School of Dramatic Arts here. She is from Austin Texas. I spoke to her while we were eating lunch at my sorority house. Much of what she told me was learned from her sister or her own experiences.


This is a good piece of folklore because the joke relies on a punchline that is a play on words. This might be difficult for some people to understand if they’re not familiar with Ketchup, so this joke may be restricted to certain places in the world with access to this specific product.

Folk speech

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

There is a very common joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Usually, it’s followed by the answer: “To get to the other side.”

From that joke, there has been many other jokes that stemmed from the joke, such as: “Why did the chicken cross the playground?” “To get to the other slide.”

These types of literal jokes are called anti-jokes, in which the punchline is not a clever play on words, but a literal, mundane answer.

For reference of the first time this joke was published, please see: The Knickerbocker, or The New York Monthly, March 1847, p. 283.


Knock-Knock Anti-Joke

“There’s this stupid knock-knock joke that my friend always did to me, and I kind of picked up on it and I do it all the time now. It just goes like this:”


Him: Okay lemme tell you this knock-knock joke.


Me: Okay, go for it.


Him: No but you have to start it.


Me: *looks puzzled* Wait what?


Him: Yeah you just start the joke!


Me: Uhhhh….. okay then, knock-knock?


Him: Who’s there?


Me: …………


*Awkward-but-hilarious silence ensues*


“So yeah that’s pretty much it, it’s kind of an anti-joke. I honestly don’t know why it’s so hilarious to me but it just is. I guess because it just makes the other person so confused and uncomfortable when they suddenly realize that the joke makes no sense whatsoever.”

This one is from one of my friends who’s lived in California his whole life and has pretty much been a joke-teller for all of his life. This is one of my personal favorites of his jokes, so I really wanted to include it. He said that he just learned it from one of his friends in elementary school, and it’s been a staple of his for years. Additionally, he said that the joke always entertains him and brings some joy to the atmosphere because of the confused reactions he gets.

Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

The Dean of Men’s Daughter

“She was only the Dean of Men’s Daughter,

With an IQ of twenty-three,

But the things that we college boys taught her

Could’ve earned her some sort of degree.”


Where’d you get that song?


University of Maryland!


So you learned that in college.


Yeah. 1965.


Who’d you learn it from?


I don’t know, some college boys. Some graduate student. In engineering.



This is a folksong that most kids at the University of Maryland presumably learn, from other, older students. It suggests school pride in being raunchy and sexually active, and there’s also a clear dynamic of gender roles embedded in the joke. The girl is either naive or provocative, but it’s the boys that show her the ropes and supposedly “corrupt” her. She is also obviously dumb, if she has such a low IQ. The fact that she’s the Dean’s daughter makes her a catch, because she’s highly unattainable and in a sense, off-limits, as well as perhaps easily corruptible because of her ‘stupidity’. Or maybe she’s dumb but attractive, so the boys don’t care. The fact that she’s the dean’s daughter makes her low intelligence funny. So this suggests the boys at U of Maryland can get away with things, and can persuade or manipulate even the most unattainable girls. They can have their fun and still stay out of trouble with the administration.