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Why trick-or-treating on Halloween is more funny than scary in St. Louis

<p>At Washington University in St. Louis on Sunday, student Andrew Dwoskin was handing out candy to local children during a "Safe Trick-or-Treat" event.</p>
Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis

At Washington University in St. Louis on Sunday, student Andrew Dwoskin was handing out candy to local children during a "Safe Trick-or-Treat" event.

Being a comedian, Joe Marlotti is always afraid he won't get laughs. But he grows especially nervous this time of year. After all, a comedian doesn't want his kids to bomb when it comes time to tell jokes.

Marlotti hails from St. Louis, where local Halloween tradition calls for children not just to say "trick or treat," but also to tell a joke in order to earn candy.

"I've been all around the block — literally — telling them that it's important to tell the joke right, or it makes me look bad," Marlotti says.

The typical Halloween joke might involve a short quiz about a witch, ghost or vampire. For example:

"What does a skeleton always say before eating?"

"Bone appétit."

The jokes don't have to be about scary subjects — and, despite the pressure Marlotti puts on his children, they don't have to be funny or even told right. Kids are graded totally on effort.

But adults in St. Louis do expect to hear a joke before they'll part with any treats. "When kids come to my door, yeah, damn it, I want them to tell a joke," says Chad Garrison, managing editor of the Riverfront Times, the local alternative weekly. (Here's a compilation of his favorites from last year.)

Joke-telling on Halloween is not unique to St. Louis. Apparently, the tradition actually started in Des Moines, where it began as a Depression-era attempt to curb hooliganism, which included upending trash cans, turning on fire hydrants and shooting out streetlights.

The theory seemed to be that kids would perform fewer pranks if they had to come up with a harmless sort of trick to receive treats.

"You ask a question or you tell a joke — in other words, you tricked that person," says John L. Oldani, the author of Passing It On: Folklore of St. Louis.

When this reporter moved to St. Louis with my family last year, Halloween joke-telling was one of the things about the city that immediately seemed odd.

One friend of ours says he'll give pencils to kids who fail to tell jokes, while any who even try to be funny can count on getting a candy bar. I know of one 8-year-old boy who, for the moment, is saying he's not going to go out tonight because of the pressure of having to perform repetitively for the benefit of strangers.

But for the locals, corny jokes are so much a part of Halloween culture that they're surprised to learn they're not the custom everywhere else.

"When I was a kid, it was required," says Garrison, the alt-weekly editor. "I don't think anyone slammed the door in your face, but you had to tell a joke."

It came as a shock when he moved for a time to Austin, Texas, and kids there didn't come to his door ready with a quip.

"I'd ask them, 'What's your joke?' " he says, "and they looked at me like I was crazy."

Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.