Halloween night on Cedar Street in Belfast is notorious for the sheer volume of trick-or-treaters who flock to the street every year. For those who know about it, 72 Cedar St. has become somewhat of an institution within an institution.

The “joke house,” as it is commonly known, is the home of Patricia and Ray Estabrook of the downtown game store All About Games and the Game Loft after school program. Like other homeowners on Cedar Street, the Estabrooks hand out a mountain of candy every year on Halloween, but there’s a catch.

As the sign outside the door proclaims, the Estabrooks require trick-or-treaters to tell a joke or sing a song if they want a piece of candy. If the joke is a dud or the visitor is unwilling to try, he or she may walk away with a potato.

Over the years the house has developed a sort of reputation and many children bring their best wit to the Estabrooks’ front door. As it turns out, the potatoes, originally conceived of as the dud prize — the Halloween equivalent of a lump of coal in the stocking — have become sought after. Some children tell great jokes, then ask for a potato. Others compete to tell the worst joke. Some stonewall.

The popularity of the potatoes probably has to do with the novelty of bringing home a tuber amid a sack full of candy bars, though Patricia Estabrook said she had heard of at least one child bringing his spud home on Halloween night, slicing it up, cooking it and eating it.

The joke house dates back to around 1990. Estabrook has a master’s degree in folklore and has dug into some of the history behind the now mostly innocuous phrase “trick or treat.” But the inspiration to ask for jokes came on a whim and from a sense of discontent about just handing out candy.

Faced with yet another mumbled “trick or treat,” Estabrook asked for the trick.

“They had no idea what I meant,” she said.

The next year, jokes were the policy, and with some exceptions, Estabrook said it was mostly the same few. After that, word started to get out and the jokes became much more original and varied.

Asked about some of the best ones from 2010, Estabrook couldn’t bring one to mind. Every year, she said, she considers audio-taping the encounters, but it hasn’t happened yet.

“They’re coming so fast that you can’t remember, especially when you’re playing the straight man,” she said. “Every kid is entitled to an audience, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m here to listen.”

Pressed for a good one, she shrugged.

“There were lots of chickens crossing roads and skeletons crossing roads,” she said.

What do the skeletons do?

“The don’t cross because they have no guts,” she said.

Thanks to several mid-evening donations, from Bangor Savings Bank and some residents of Cedar Street’s less-traveled parallel, Congress Street, the Estabrooks still had a large metal basin full of candy at the end of the night, but the potato basket was nearly empty.

The potatoes, in theory, were reserved for bad jokes, but even the most timid players — teens mumbling the “A, B, Cs,” or warbling the opening bar of “Love Hurts,” children delivering backward readings of the knock-knock joke that centers around a persistent banana, finally, and mercifully, replaced by an orange (“orange you glad I didn’t say ‘banana’,” goes the punchline) walked away with candy.

And whether they got a piece of candy or a potato, most seemed happy with their prize, but not all.

Late in the evening, as the Estabrooks were getting ready to close up for the night, a man came to the door. His 4-year-old son was in the car crying because he had found a potato in his bag, he said.

The man threw the potato back into the bin. “Down South we don’t do that kind of thing,” he said. “It’s rude.”

Estabrook tried to talk to the man, but he appeared intent on being angry. She explained that she always asks how old the child is. Anyone under 6 gets candy, no questions asked. “What was he dressed as?” she said.

“A mummy,” the man replied. “He’s 4 years old.”

Estabrook seemed to remember the boy. “He said he was 6,” she said.

The man left in a huff. Estabrook said it happens about once every two or three years that someone takes offense.

The next day, she forwarded an e-mail as counterpoint to this Halloween’s awkward ending. As a proud grandmother related, the Estabrooks had made a great impression on her 6-year-old grandson.

The boy apparently refused to go to any other houses on Cedar Street until he had been to the “joke house.” Despite lots of talk about Halloween in the week leading up to the big night, the boy hadn’t let on that he was working through his repertoire of jokes, looking for a really good one.

The joke will probably be lost to memory, but the important part seemed to be that he delivered it, and it was well received.

“Henry kept reminding his mom and me for the rest of the evening that, ‘The man at the Joke House really liked my joke.’ Big proud smile,” the e-mail read. “Thank you both for ‘getting it’ about what kids need.”