In Defense of Dad Jokes

laughingOnce I was preparing dinner with my wife and a friend of ours when the friend asked me to get a tray of ice cubes from the freezer. I opened the freezer and then let out a groan and a melodramatic curse of chagrin.

“What?!” My wife and our friend asked in unison.

“These ice cubes are ruined,” I said.

“How?”

“They’re frozen solid.”

Our friend smacked me in the chest. “Shut up, Dad!”

She said she felt like she had suddenly been transported back in time to her middle school years, her parents’ kitchen. I thought I was just being funny. She thought that particular kind of funny a) sounded like her dad and b) was, therefore, not funny at all.

I have come to find out her attitude is not unique. I didn’t know it then, but in that moment I was exhibiting a form of humor commonly referred to as “dad humor,” or “dad jokes”. I’m certain my sense of humor predates my becoming a dad, so maybe it’s just guy humor.

Be that as it may, dad jokes fall into different categories, but they apparently all have one thing in common: they are widely regarded as being unfunny to everyone except the dad telling the joke and to other dads. To dads, they are side-splitting.

There’s a category of dad jokes called anti-jokes, for example:

Q: What is brown and sticky?

A: A stick.

Q: What is yellow and fluffy?

A: Yellow fluff

Q: What is blue and smells like red paint?

A: Blue paint

Anti-jokes are straight forward, literal answers to questions that masquerade as the openings to jokes. They should come with a rim shot. I can hear it. Anti-jokes are the Lucy Van Pelt pulling the football away from Charlie Brown again of the joke world: you shouldn’t fall for them, but you do. The anti-joke is funny because it’s not funny and the joke is always on you.

There’s another category of dad jokes that I call the “Lie and Wait”.

Here’s how to pull off a “Lie and Wait” of your own:

  1. With a straight face, tell a ridiculous untruth
  2. Wait for the victim to finally realize the lie
  3. Wait years if you must
  4. Laugh uproariously
  5. Recount the story for many years to come, especially at holiday gatherings

An example: Once, while driving through Wisconsin with our father, my sister saw cows grazing on a hillside.

“How can they stand on the hill without falling over?” She asked.

Dad paused, pondering. He pursed his lips, looked thoughtful. Then he said, “Different legs. Every cow has two long legs on one side, two short legs on the other. As long as they stand with their short legs on the uphill side they can never fall over.”

She bought it.

He let her buy it.

He drove on.

Years later her school friends told her that was not true.

There’s a third category; a catch-all category. Call it “One sigh fits all”. In this category find the puns, the turns of phrase, the I-should-have-seen-that-coming smartass answers.

Wife: Good morning. How did you sleep?

Husband: Mostly on my side.

Q: What’s the difference between beer nuts and deer nuts?

A: Beer nuts are a dollar fifty, deer nuts are under a buck.

Q: What did the rug say to the floor?

A: Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

Or there’s this classic combination of physical and language humor: when I was little (and even when I wasn’t anymore) my dad reaching over while he was driving and pressing his large, strong hand against my forehead.

“What?” I would ask.

“That sign we just passed. It said stop a head.”

Sigh. Groan. HA HA, Dad.

But I’m not here today to pile derision on top of the derision already piled on dad jokes. I’m here to posit that dad jokes serve a noble purpose that is often overlooked.

It occurs to me that even as I got older and my dad and I found it harder to talk to each other, I would see a Stop Ahead road sign and I would wait for – and welcome – his hand on my head, the stupid pun. I’d dismiss the joke – roll my eyes, groan a cynical HA HA – but inside my heart was filled a little each time he did that.

In those moments, he was literally reaching out to me. When I had no time, patience, interest or confidence for serious conversations with my dad and my resistance to communication made for long silences between us, my dad’s jokes got through. They made me realize he still saw me, they reminded me we were still together, still connected and that he wanted to be connected.

“I’m just trying to get a rise out of you,” my dad would say. You didn’t have to laugh. You just had to wake up and react in some way – eye roll, groan, shaking head, even anger would do. There was a purpose to it (a porpoise to it?).

I think dad jokes are noble because dads know they’re stupid jokes but they tell them anyway, even if they aren’t fully aware of why they tell them. I think dads do it – consciously or unconsciously – to highlight connection, acknowledge presence, reconfirm familial bonds. Convey love.

That’s my experience of dad jokes. What was your dad’s sense of humor like? Was it a positive or a negative in your family? Was your mom funny or was that your dad’s role?

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8 thoughts on “In Defense of Dad Jokes

  1. My dad and I have the exact same sense of humor. I think that’s part of the reason we are so close. He would make a comment totally deadpan (similar to your lie and wait category) and it would totally go over my siblings’ heads, while I was trying (and failing) not to laugh.

    • Thanks for your comment EmAnne. Humor is regional, cultural, tribal…it occurs to me that, of course, our families are our tribes. I think each family has its own unique sense of humor. It makes sense too that our senses of humor might influence one another — perhaps the reason you and your dad share a sense of humor.

  2. My dad’s been gone for so many year, I’d all but forgotten these goofy dad-isms. Thanks for bringing back the memories, Ethan.

    • Happy to. Our humor — whether good humor or bad humor — is the indelible psychic mark we leave on the world when we go. This post started through a conversation I had with my brother. I asked him “Do you remember Dad’s sense of humor? Examples of it?” We got to talking, we got to laughing, I felt closer to my brother because of it and our dad was right back there in the room with us even though he’s been gone for 27 years.

  3. My ex-husband and his dad shared the same kind of dad humor and it drives me nuts till this day. However I will admit to convincing my cousin (when we were both adults) that caterpillars grew fur coats in the northern regions, in the winter and then shed them in the spring. My spoil-sport sister told her I was having her on.

    • Joyce, I hope my examples didn’t add to your discomfort. Too bad your spoil-sport sister ruined that one for you. Part of the fun is seeing how long you can get the person to believe the lie…for those of us who think it’s fun anyway. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. I think it’s a way that dads want to reach out to us, to let us know that there are here for us. It may be lame sometimes, but it’s what makes all dads so endearing haha 🙂

    • I’m glad you see it that way. It gets harder and harder to connect as kids get older and interested in friends and their own activities. So give dads credit for trying anyway. Thanks for commenting.

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