When Cartoon Network announced plans for new programs — a "curriculum," as they put it — "to help preschoolers learn to have a sense of humor," it almost sounded like, well, a joke.
Don’t little kids laugh and giggle and say funny stuff all the time? Isn’t this just a gimmick to get our wee ones to watch Tickle U — the name of the new programming block — instead of whatever Disney Channel, PBS or Nickelodeon is selling in that time slot?
I’ve always thought my own kids were pretty funny, but I called home just to check.
"Tell me a joke," I asked my 4-year-old daughter.
"Why did the chicken cross the road?" she said. I thought I knew, but played along and asked her why.
"Cause he saw a little finger that was crossing the sidewalk," she replied, laughing like she’d already earned her diploma from Tickle U.
Frankly, I have no idea what that means. I’m not worried — she can be a surrealist comic when she grows up. Still, according to Cartoon Network, there are all these somber toddlers out there not getting the joke, and they need help.
So I quit kidding around and called Alice Cahn, creator of Tickle U, to find out what it was all about.
"Children who learn humor tend to get along better with others," the Cartoon Network vice president of programming told me. "Children who learn these skills have an easier time as lifelong learners. They have a more flexible way of looking at the world around them.
"The matter of fact is, if you don’t get the joke you don’t find it funny, so there is a link between humor and intelligence," said Cahn, whose long career in children’s T V includes stints at "Sesame Street" and five years as director of children’s programming for PBS.
She explained that the network looked at research that demonstrated all kinds of benefits of a strong sense of humor — from development of social and cognitive skills to the ability to reduce stress and create more optimism.
The network also commissioned a parents poll and found 98 percent believed developing a child’s sense of humor was important, and 60 percent would improve their child’s sense of humor if they could. So Cartoon Network decided to make humor enhancement its twist on preschooler programs.
"It was so important to me to put something on television to inspire them to laugh, to inspire their imaginations," Cahn said.
But if a cartoon is actually funny, don’t most kids laugh without being taught how?
"Lots of shows have humor in them, but it might not translate to preschoolers laughing," Cahn said. "The industry you see now is increasingly chatty.
"If you watch a show like ‘Dragon Tales,’ the characters laugh on the screen, but the kids who are watching are not always laughing. We tend to use dialogue to carry the story line, and this is a group that is just starting to acquire language."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids 2 and younger watch no TV, and only one or two hours a day for older children. So why do preschoolers need to watch TV at all?
Cahn said that in moderation, television can be an appropriate way for kids to learn.
"No one would suggest that any children, be they teenagers or preschoolers, spend their entire day doing one thing," she said. "For those children who are visual learners . . . why not utilize the technology at our disposal to create things that are developmentally appropriate?"
The shows are gentle enough entertainment, but to critics, it’s not the content that’s objectionable.
"What we’re concerned about is the way it was marketed to parents," said Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston.
"Essentially, their PR stuff echoes the old marketing technique of creating a need that doesn’t exist in order to sell a product," she said.
The idea that watching the Tickle U programs will teach kids to have a sense of humor — and therefore is good for kids — is "essentially deceptive," Linn said.
While a sense of humor is a wonderful thing and research on its benefits is abundant, linking those benefits to TV is disingenuous, she said.
"They’re calling it a humor curriculum . . . and in fact, watching television actually deprives kids of doing what they need to do to develop a sense of humor," Linn said. "They should be engaging in the world, getting a sense of mastery of the world, and interacting with other kids and adults."