Sunday, March 30, 2008
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Turns out the answer is age-dependent: if you’re older than 14, the typical response is either “to get to the other side” or “because it was stapled to the car.” However, my seven-year-old cousin recently provided two new reasons. First, he said, “To get to the alien headquarters database.”
Then, not convinced that extraterrestrial HQ would warrant a jaunt across the street, he said, “Because [unintelligible Pokemon person] needed to go to [unintelligible Pokemon place] to [unintelligible Pokemon action].” Startled that the joke had changed so much since I was a kid, I asked him where he’d heard all that.
“At school,” he said, organizing his Pokemon cards in a binder.
“Who told you the joke?”
“All my friends tell the same joke. Everybody knows it,” he said, annoyed.
The pedestrian chicken's evolution has been swift. The factors that compelled it to cross the road 15 years ago are no longer relevant, replaced by ultra-sci-fi and cartoons. My generation grew up with the Power Rangers and Sonic the Hedgehog, but we segregated our humor and entertainment. Even the fortunate few who had Duck Hunt guns in first grade never cross-pollinated their joke repertoire and their living room amusement. Yet my cousin—and his friends, apparently—are bringing life experience into their jokes, incorporating stumpy little Pokefreaks into chickens who cross roads.
Sorry to say, but a chicken crossing the road lacks the cognitive power to discern a special purpose in its sojourn—an ambulatory chicken is probably thinking about nothing at all, and, at best, is thinking something like, “Cross. Now. Poop.” That otherwise intelligent kids could suggest that a chicken would go to an alien headquarters is indicative of the chief difference between kids today and kids yesterday—kids today believe the video game universe is real. At heart, my generation knew that Sonic was a fantastical creature, and though he amused us, he remained illusory, a figment of Sega’s imagination.
Kids today, however, are born into a technological landscape so interactive that differentiating between real and delusional is very difficult. Imagine being four years old and being able to instruct your TV what to show you, seeing your parents conduct most of their lives through a computer, and listening to music through a wafer-shaped doohickey with a track wheel. Most people’s online friends outnumber their real ones by a 10:1 margin, and social lives are organized on the Internet. Breaking up on Facebook is as ritualized as actually breaking up, and having MySpace fans is as vital to a band as having fans at a show.
So is it really such a stretch for a four year-old, seven year-old, or even eleven year-old to assume that Pokemon characters are really their friends? Or that chickens coexist with aliens? No wonder their humor reveals a certain belief in the non-real; indeed, their lives are orchestrated in the gloaming between actual, corporeal reality and virtual reality. Is Pikachu any less real than a Facebook friendship? Or, put more pointedly, is a TV that does your bidding any less real than the person next to you in class?
What’s so wrong with supposing that a chicken and an alien and a Pokemon all exist? In this new child’s world, where television and computers dictate reality as much as reality dictates reality, jokes must reflect the ever-broadening definition of what could possibly be.
So, why did the chicken cross the road? I don’t know. I’m too old.
Stay Seven, Kids