A few days ago I was watching a circus show with my almost 3-year-old daughter. There was a guy who was doing some pirouettes on a horizontal bar: he would turn several times in a row and then stop to make some jokes.
After a while, and since he was also a comedian, they put a mattress on the floor so he could fall on it. And this is what happened: for us adults it was clear that he would turn and turn and, in a certain moment, release from the bar and fall on the mattress as if he had fallen down. Also, he would walk a bit on the bar and then pretend he slid and fall on the mattress again.
All of this was funny and they (him and his assistant) were making funny faces. However, the subtleties of the joke were not clear at all to my daughter, who started to feel very anxious and helpless.
I explained to her that it was a joke and walked her to the side of the stage to show how big the mattress was, and how he was not hurting himself at all when falling on it. However, none of this helped and she kept feeling very sorry for the man. I decided to just move out for a while and come back when the show was over, to see how the man was smiling and feeling perfectly safe.
In any case, what remained interesting to me was the fact itself: She felt empathy (something they gain when they are around 3 years old). But how can a toddler infer in such situations that things are just a joke? I see itself as a kind of irony, which is something that a kid just starts understanding when a bit older (5-6 years old?).