My informant is a 19-year-old college student who grew up in Chicago, Illinois, then moved out to California where she now attends the University of Southern California. Both her parents are from a Jewish background and her ethnicity is Dutch, Russian, Lithuanian, and English.
I asked my informant if she could provide me with any riddles. She quickly perked up and gave me the first one that came to her head which also was her favorite:
Riddle: What’s greater than god, more evil than the devil, poor people have it, rich people need it, and if you eat it you will die.
I sat and guessed a lot of ridiculous things as she smiled at me. I had a feeling it was going to be one of those answers I was not going to like, and low and behold I was right.
Informant: “Do you give up? The answer is nothing. Nothing is greater than god, nothing is more evil than the devil, rich people need nothing, poor people have nothing, and if you eat nothing you will die”
I was not very pleased with the answer, but I think this is the reason of the riddle. It is the same idea behind young children telling riddles. They have an answer to something that they know you will most likely not guess. This knowledge of some unknown gives them a sense of power over the older adult that they are talking to and this creates an element of humor for children.
Informant: “I learned it a long time ago, probably when I was in middle school. Like anything else, I learned it from a friend and then went on to stump all of my friends who then probably went on to stump their friends. I definitely told it to my parents at some point and got a lot of enjoyment out of fooling them”.
Riddles such as this one are considered humorous in some ways because the answer is not apparent. The unknown answer creates this humor and the big reveal of the answer to the unexpected guesser acts almost as a punch line to a joke.