Informant: What is worse than ten dead babies stapled to one tree?
Collector: I don’t know. What?
Informant: One dead baby stapled to ten trees.
Context: The piece was collected during a casual interview. I grew up hearing the informant telling dead baby jokes so I asked her to participate in an interview to collect one.
Background: The informant is my twenty-two year old sister. She learned this piece from friends in high school who shared her self-proclaimed “dark humor.” She both attended high school and currently lives in San Diego, California. She is an avid metal and alternative music fan with a love of body modifications including tattoos and piercings.
Analysis: Dead baby jokes are most common among teenagers and people in their early twenties, coinciding with my sister’s age both when she learned the joke and when it was performed for this collection. I believe my sister particularly enjoys this genre of joke because it is very grim and graphic. She participates in numerous unconventional subcultures that involve bold displays of self expression (including seven face piercings and visible neck and hand tattoos) that may be considered tabooistic. The joke finds humor in infant death, a subject usually not discussed openly or with humor if discussed at all. In doing so, the joke is at odds with social convention in the same way that my sister’s displays of self expression may be.
For more information on dead baby jokes, see:
Dundes, Alan. “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle.” Western folklore 38, no. 3 (January 1, 1979): 145–157. http://search.proquest.com/docview/75040401/.
It’s a joke my informant heard in middle school from his brother.
“What’s the worst part about having sex with a dead baby on your porch?”
“Getting blood on your clown suit.”
My informant said dead baby jokes are interesting to him because they’re the epitome of macabre humor. They show how humor has evolved up to where it is now that these are the kinds of things people find funny. He says the jokes are primarily funny because of the shock value because the answers are so unexpected. He also commented that he thinks it’s interesting that the teller often seems to get more out of the joke in these cases because they will get to enjoy shocking someone, whereas with most jokes the audience gets more out of it.
I agree with his analysis. The last part is an especially novel point, and I think it’s true. The audience probably wants to be shocked, but the teller might find it more satisfying to be shocking, since society so often doesn’t want us to be. But in the context of a joke that we heard from someone else, and therefore which we aren’t responsible for, we can be as shocking as we want without guilt or shame.
Dead baby jokes show how we use humor to deal with the things we find most frightening or gruesome in life. These jokes take that to the most extreme point possible by taking the most vulnerable thing in society and subjecting it to the most horrible sexual and violent acts we can think of. Often people will be offended by the question of the joke, but the punchline usually takes it so much further (meaning, is even more offensive) that people can’t help but laugh, because that’s the only way they can deal with something that is so socially unacceptable and sounds so terrible. There are many dead baby jokes and they all seem to function in this way, pushing the limits of what is inappropriate so far and with such a level of self-awareness that they become funny.