The familiar patter of the paterfamilias

In praise of the dad joke

Published in The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2023

Fatherhood is as old as Adam, even if he was less than Abel at parenting. And jokes are as old as the bar the guy keeps walking into, banging his head on it each time. But the dad joke as a widely understood idea is only in its mid-teens, the approximate age of its ideal audience. (You need to get them before they’re fully groan.)

The first documented use of the term, per Merriam-Webster, was in 1987, the same year that the terms Generation X and thirtysomething first appeared in print. But for the next 20 years, the dad joke won the sort of prize you get for doing nothing: a trophy.

In 2006, this newspaper’s Social Studies column was among the first to bring the phrase into wider use, citing an Australian humour writer’s argument that unfunny jokes allow children to see their fathers as imperfect and thus help the maturation process. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the appearance of keywords in English-language books, doesn’t spot any significant mentions of the dad joke until 2008. The Reddit forum on dad jokes was created in 2011, and in 2014 it became a trending search term on Google. Since then the dad joke, like a corduroy pillow, has been consistently making headlines.

Yet as surely as a backward poet writes inverse, fathers have always joked around with their children. And that, Danish humour researcher Marc Hye-Knudsen argued in his 2022 paper Dad Jokes and the Deep Roots of Fatherly Teasing, is why dads need puns like bakers knead buns.

His theory goes like this: Rough-and-tumble play is the only aspect of child-rearing in which fathers traditionally outperform mothers. That play supports cognitive and social development, preparing kids for the outside world in a vigorous, unpredictable way that generally goes further than the mother would condone. In other words, horseplay builds stable relationships.

Most research on the father-child bond focuses on these physical interactions, but Dr. Hye-Knudsen argues that what we call the dad joke is the verbal equivalent of rough-and-tumble play. Neither punches nor punchlines are landed.

Dad jokes are meant to be like paper: tearable. In that way, they subvert the theory that jokes work because of the benign violation of norms: Something is out of place but don’t worry, it’s all okay so we can laugh about it. In a dad joke, the norms are barely grazed. Without a violation, it’s not humour but anti-humour.

And just as not every national anthem qualifies as country music, not every pun is a dad joke. For starters, they have to be clean – a dirty dad joke is an uncle joke. They should be short, as is the intended audience. And they shouldn’t actually be funny, just as a hippie’s wife isn’t actually called Mississippi. How do you know if the joke teller is getting it right? It’s immediately a parent.

These jokes actually work on small children, and up until age 7 everyone can agree that telling them makes a parent like a scarecrow: outstanding in their field. But into adolescence, when the easily embarrassed teenager squirms at bad puns, the mother, according to the theory, has the good sense and compassion to stop. But like a space cowboy guided by his saddle lights, Dad keeps going.

And unlike a broken pencil, he may have a point. Dr. Hye-Knudsen concludes that the dad joke is a form of weaponized anti-humour that prepares teens for “the social challenge of being true to themselves and making confident, authentic choices despite the social judgment that can come from this.”

“By purposefully telling your kids jokes that are so bad they’re embarrassing, you show them that they don’t have to take themselves so seriously, that you don’t die from embarrassment, that it’s okay to be lame sometimes,” Dr. Hye-Knudsen told me over e-mail. “That makes dad jokes kind of cool, I think – in addition to being lame, obviously.”

This theory is as remarkable as a dry-erase board, but it doesn’t account for the relative newness of the dad joke. So what happened in the first decade of the century that unleashed the cracking? Like the guy who rings the bells at Notre Dame, I have a hunch.

It starts with Father Knows Best, the 1950s sitcom with a title that sounds deeply sarcastic. And yet he did! As the father of the All-American Boy and the Girl Next Door, this pipe-smoking dad wore a cardigan around the house, gently defended the patriarchy and had no idea what was coming.

Cut to generations of sitcom subversions, from Archie Bunker to Homer Simpson to Phil Dunphy. These bumbling dads let audiences enjoy a self-satisfied chuckle on the right side of gender inequality.

Meanwhile, in the early 2000s, cringe comedy was on the rise. In The Office, which ran for a mere 14 episodes in its original BBC incarnation, the awkward workplace encounter was raised to a high comic art. The thuddingly bad joke evokes a cringe, and the reaction shot provides the laugh. John Krasinski has built a whole career on his blank stares in the American version of the show.

These two comedy styles were smashed together to great effect in 2008, when Norm Macdonald delivered the most memorable performance at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget. The man who played the lame dad on Full House in the early 1990s had spent his post-sitcom career using more fowl language than a dirty chicken, so how did Mr. Macdonald skewer him? With the gentlest possible gags, a brilliant bait-and-switch from uncle jokes to anti-humour.

“Bob has a beautiful face, like a flower – yeah, a cauliflower,” Mr. Macdonald drawled. “No offence, but your face looks like a cauliflower.”

“He thinks the English Channel is a British TV station and not a body of water separating England and France,” he continued, carefully explaining the laughs out of the gag.

“He’s never bought Christmas seals,” he finished, not noting that it was August. “He told me he wouldn’t know what to feed them.”

You can hear the audience figuring it out in real time. The TV dad had tried to escape his persona, but Mr. Macdonald hung it around his neck. The anti-humour was weaponized by an expert marksman. And in doing so, Mr. Macdonald demonstrated that a bad joke could be hilarious if, like a dolphin pun, it was made on porpoise.

Now, like a woodworking detective, my evidence isn’t concrete. But once the streams of dad and cringe were crossed, it was only a matter of time. Dads needed new material and kids were primed to wince, so the setup for an underwhelming punchline was complete.

“Dad, I’m cringing,” the teenager might complain. “Hi cringing, nice to meet you,” the father responds, nobly sacrificing his dignity to become a better parent.

“The dad who tells a lame dad joke is playing the fool,” Dr. Hye-Knudsen notes. “He’s the one potentially embarrassing himself, and only through embarrassing himself does he annoy or vicariously embarrass his children.”

Collections of dad jokes followed, all accurately boasting about just how bad they were. (A review of this literature found these books to be like large belts made of watches – a big waist of time.) The Dad Jokes subreddit took off, finding a comfortable spot above Pokémon but below Oddly Satisfying in the site’s most popular forums and helping me maximize the groan factor of this piece.

And as kids were raised, so was this question: Was it problematic to put a hardy-har-har into the patriarchy? There were periodic debates about the role of mom jokes, most artfully captured in Hera Lindsay Bird’s 2016 poem The Dad Joke Is Over as follows:

sometimes, when there exists too much of a good thing/and/the market is oversaturated with cringing/and/years of puns have blighted the emotional landscape/A great empire can fall/& laughter grow up from the ruins

Ms. Bird declared that “the mother joke is here, and there is no punchline.” Though when a woman gives birth, she actually is kidding.

In the same year, Hillary Clinton selected a man whom Buzzfeed News called a “living, breathing dad joke” as her vice-presidential nominee. Senator Tim Kaine’s bad impressions, affable demeanour and inability to deliver a punchline didn’t do much to turn back a populist tide.

The dad joke’s rise had coincided with the cheap optimism of the Obama era, and angrier times seemed to demand darker jokes. Like a thief in a theatre, other forms of humour stole the spotlight. The Trump presidency, in John Mulaney’s memorable metaphor, was like having a horse loose in the hospital. No one knew what to do about it, least of all the horse.

But eventually, the horse left. And your dad once had a horse named Mayo. And sometimes Mayo neighs.

Google searches for dad jokes hit an all-time high in March of this year. Maybe they’ve hit a plateau, which is the highest form of flattery. At this point, you don’t have to be a father figure, or even a dad bod, to embrace the dad joke. They are forever and for everyone, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a faux pa.