Riddle – American

The informant learned the following riddle from his parents “years and years and years ago”:

“What’s black and white and red all over?” He gives several possible answers for the riddle, the first being the one his parents gave him (“A newspaper”). The others he mentioned were “a panda in a blender” and “a police car with a sunburn.” He claims to have “heard millions of variations on it, some of them more logical than others.”

The informant used to perform the riddle often as a child: “When I first learned it I told it to everybody I knew ’cause I thought it was hysterically funny at the time.” However, he almost never tells it any more.

The informant has great contempt for riddles in general: “I think it’s enormously stupid. I think most riddles are, especially the one that kids tell, are ultimately, uh, sort of the weakest form of humor possible.” He does make a distinction, however, between children’s riddles and adult riddles: “Riddles in my mind are either more pun-type riddles, in which case they’re usually, uh, they’re usually kid based in the sense of, uh, of they’re playing around with the idea that your brain thinks in one way and it’s actually being tricked; or they’re the more traditional riddles such as the one that the sphinx tells and stuff, that are much more about human condition, and those, I think, are riddles that adults, if they tell them at all, it will be adults telling each other because kids won’t understand them.”

The first answer to the riddle that the informant gives makes of it a “true riddle”—that is, there is an obvious answer to the question if the listener thinks about it in a different way, the pun being on the word “read” as a homophone for “red.” The police car answer seems like a deliberate attempt to be ridiculous, since it is obvious that a car cannot get a sunburn, but the panda answer is an obvious bid for shock value—since pandas are both “cute” and endangered, many listeners could be shocked and appalled at that answer. Clearly, from the informant’s assertion that he has heard many versions of the riddle, it has both multiplicity and variation. Archer Taylor recorded the riddle with the newspaper answer in his book English Riddles from Oral Tradition in 1951 (624).


Taylor, Archer. English Riddles from Oral Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.