“What’s worse than a dead baby?

…a pile of dead babies”

“What’s worst than a pile of dead babies?

…a live one on the bottom”

“What’s worse than a live one on the bottom?

…the live one on the bottom eating his way out.”

“What’s worse than eating his way out?

…going back for seconds.”

After the last line, and in response to the wide-eyed, open-jawed expression of sheer shock upon my face, the informant closed by saying, “and that’s the joke.”  The informant confessed that the audience for whom he would perform this joke, or anyone with whom he would share it was a folk group he defined very precisely as “only people who I know wouldn’t be utterly offended.”  The informant explained that he could not remember where he originally heard the joke, but answered generally with a shrug of his shoulders, “friends?”

The “Dead Baby Joke” is not a recent phenomena, in fact Alan Dundes wrote an entire article on their prevalence among teenage boys in the ‘60s and ‘70s (Dundes, 1979).  But as with many other things, there has been a recent resurgence in their popularity among a particular with the internet as such a readily available source of exchange.   Naturally, there are webpages upon webpages, exclusively dedicated to them– a google search brings over sixteen hundred hits.  There are forums of internet cult groups who do nothing but share, discuss and create this genre of humor.  The informant seemed to believe that the dead baby joke was a new and budding genre that grew in direct relation with its internet popularity— it is quite likely he never would have been apart of this folk group should it not have been for the internet.

This joke does not have a punch line.  There series of question seems to set up an incongruity without anything incongruous.  The incongruity comes from the absurdity of the question.  The listener is left to expect some kind of clever pun, or play on words that he or she perhaps did not foresee, but in the end the answers end up being a perfectly logical, sequence—which is completely unexpected.  It was for this reason that the informant felt the need to confirm to me that the joke was over.  Ultimately, there was no joke, but the absolutely shocking nature of the degree of ridiculousness creates such a sense of disbelief in the audience that a “joke” is effectively created.  I believe the informant’s summarized his own, similar analysis by telling me, “people will most likely think [dead baby jokes] are completely unfunny.  But I think they’re funny.  They’re just so grotesque and over the top that its beyond reality! So all that’s left is it has to be funny!”

Annotation: An pre-internet age analysis of the Dead Baby Joke can be found in the following article:

The Dead Baby Joke Cycle

Alan Dundes

Western Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Jul., 1979), pp. 145-157.

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