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Every time we drive through farm country in my dad’s home state of Indiana, we know it’s coming. As soon as he spots it in his peripheral vision from the driver’s seat, it’s like clockwork: “Hey, you know a guy died in there?” he says, feigning nonchalance as he points to the round barn just off the highway.
There is silence, maybe a mutual Here we go glance shared between the rest of us, as my dad gets a merry little gleam in his eye. Eventually he can’t resist any longer, and he lets the punch line rip: “Couldn’t find a corner to pee in!”
My dad, once a farmer, told me this joke for the first time when I was about 8. When I interviewed my father for this story, he told me he’d heard it from his dad, also a farmer, when he was about 8. (He also boasted that he’d told my mom this joke, to her great amusement, when they were dating as teenagers; my mom then yelled into the phone that she had in fact heard it before, even at the time. Probably from her own dad, a farmer.)
It would be difficult to make the case that the “guy who died in the round barn” joke, a classic Midwest joke, is funny in its own right—though I would argue it’s pretty funny how much my dad still loves telling it. Which makes it a shining example of one of America’s great familial oral traditions: the dad joke.
In recent years, the mass-sharing capabilities of the internet have facilitated a renewed (eye-rolling, faux-begrudging) appreciation of the dad joke. The Reddit page r/dadjokes, a forum where users go to share and enjoy “the jokes that make you laugh and cringe in equal measure,” has more than 1 million subscribers and amasses several new posts every hour. The online video series Dad Jokes, which pits comedians and celebrities against each other in dad-joke-telling competitions where “if you laugh you lose,” launched in 2017 and today, in 2018, has some 999,000 followers on Facebook. Twitter users, meanwhile, frequently call each other (and themselves) out for their simplest and squeaky-cleanest puns by tweeting “#dadjoke.”
Dad jokes are simultaneously beloved and maligned, deeply ingrained in the intimacies of family life and yet universal and public enough to have a hashtag. A specific tone and interpersonal dynamic converge to make a joke a dad joke—and the recent ubiquity of dad jokes might even reveal something about the states of modern fatherhood and humor.
When dad jokes get affectionately mocked or mockingly appreciated online, they’re often characterized as ultimately harmless but only barely clever—i.e., “indescribably cheesy and/or dumb,” “corny jokes you hate with every fiber of your being but also can’t help but laugh at,” with a tendency to “generate groans instead of guffaws” and “pitying glances, not affectionate smiles.” And there are, to be sure, many varieties of jokes that get called dad jokes. Many dad jokes operate on “anti-humor,” or the deliberate denial of a clever punch line: “What did the farmer say when he lost his tractor? ‘Where’s my tractor?’” Others boil down to just playful, willful misunderstanding of a situation, for seemingly no reason. My granddad, for example, liked to pretend he thought my name was Mildred. (It is not.)
But if there’s one feature that can immediately categorize a joke as a “dad joke,” it’s wordplay, especially of the unsophisticated variety. Examples: “Hey, do you know what time my dentist appointment is? Tooth-hurty.” “You know why they always build fences around cemeteries? Because people are dying to get in.” The purposeful confusion of “smart feller” and “fart smeller.” This famous exchange: “I’m hungry.” “Hi, Hungry. I’m Dad.” (Which in turn inspired a popular tweet about parents’ acceptance of their LGBTQ kids: “Mom, Dad ... I’m gay.” “Hi, Gay. I’m Dad.”)
Stanley Dubinsky, an English professor at the University of South Carolina and the father of two young-adult sons, is a frequent deployer of dad jokes, mostly of the non-pun variety; he likes to deliberately mispronounce words sometimes, just to hear his kids groan and scoff exasperatedly. (“I take a little bit of perverse pleasure in causing them some embarrassment when I speak,” Dubinsky says. “Your kids are embarrassed by you anyway, so the next best thing [to them laughing in earnest at your jokes] is to level with that.”) But Dubinsky’s also a linguist and the co-author of the book Understanding Language Through Humor, and as he explains it, there’s a particular type of wordplay that gives a joke the dubious distinction of being a dad joke.
Polysemy, derived from the Greek terms for “many” and “signs,” is the coexistence of several meanings or uses for the same word. And as Dubinsky explains, dying to get in demonstrates the polysemy of the word dying by implying that someone is eager or desirous rather than in the act of perishing. “Most jokes rely on some semantic ambiguity or grammatical ambiguity,” Dubinsky says. “The things people call ‘dad jokes’ are the ones where the ambiguity is crushingly obvious.”
How these types of jokes got associated with dads, however, is another question, and there are a few compelling theories floating around. When my colleague McKay Coppins tweeted about his life as a suburban dad and someone responded by asking him how dads get their dad jokes, he said that it is a “combination of exhaustion and your kids laughing at anything when they’re very young, which creates a perverse incentive system and endows you with false confidence.” (“Then you spend the rest of your life doubling down on dad jokes,” he added in an email to me later. He does, though, hope to pass the dad-joke tradition down to his own son one day.)
Dubinsky likes this theory, both as a researcher and as a parent. As kids get older and less childlike, he says, there’s a sense of loss, and a nostalgia that sets in for when they were smaller. “You don’t have children anymore,” he says. “One way to get back to that time is to go back to the stupid old jokes they used to think were funny.”
Dubinsky also acknowledges, however, that the phrase dad joke is sometimes used as a pejorative when someone makes a lame joke—and he believes there’s a specific intergenerational dynamic at work when it is. “One of the things about language is that we judge the sophistication of our peers by how sophisticated they are with use of language. Your smartest friends can use deadpan sarcasm, and your smartest friends can get it when you’re deadpanning sarcasm,” he says. So when someone makes a dumb or unsophisticated joke, they may be on the receiving end of some mild disapproval. Plus, it’s Dubinsky’s belief that every generation holds a somewhat disapproving opinion of the generation just before it. “They love their grandparents, but parents are just a chore and a pain,” he adds. “So one way to disrespect your parents is to note how unsophisticated their humor is.”
That same mild, sometimes playful intergenerational scorn runs through some other cultures’ near-equivalents to the dad joke. Jinsook Choi, a linguistic anthropologist who teaches at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, observed in a 2016 article in the Korean Anthropology Review that dad jokes have an analog in Korean culture known as ajae gaegeu. These are jokes or “gags” like those a distant uncle or middle-aged man (“ajae,” short for “ajeossi”) might make to a younger person. “The various definitions circulating online have the following elements in common: ‘an unfunny joke,’ ‘an outdated joke,’ ‘a joke one is forced to laugh at,’ and ‘an unfunny play on words,’” she writes.
Similarly, oyaji gyagu in Japan usually involve puns and wordplay, and as Choi points out, “it’s so unfunny when middle-aged men tell oyaji jokes in Japan that young people (those in their 20s and 30s) show hostility and hatred toward the joke-tellers.” But the real point of oyaji gyagu, it seems, is similar to the real point of dad jokes: As the English-language newspaper The Japan Times explained in 2013, “More than entertaining the hearer of such jokes, it seems that the pleasure is with the teller.”
When I asked Dubinsky, who’s studied language traditions native to countries in Africa and Asia, whether dads in any other cultures were also known for goofy puns, he didn’t know offhand, but he hypothesized that the commonality of interpersonal joking, especially between people of different generations, could reveal how parent-child relationships are expected to work in a particular society: “If there are rigid rules about generational respect, rigid formulas for intergenerational discourse,” he told me, father-and-child relations would probably not be so casual as to include silly jokes.
Still, he said, he couldn’t be totally sure without having raised kids himself in another culture—and he’d only ever been an American dad, raising kids in America.
“At the beginning of American history, the father was a towering figure in the family,” wrote E. Anthony Rotundo, a historian and the author of American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity From the Revolution to the Modern Era, in 1985. In the agricultural, colonial society of early America, the father’s control of the land he owned allowed him to exercise control over the rate at which his children gained their independence and when and who they married; colonial fathers were generally considered to be their families’ chief disciplinarians and the natural guardians of the sons of the family (while daughters were more likely to be considered children of their mothers). The typical American father-son relationship at that point in history, Rotundo wrote, could be characterized as “distant, didactic, and condescending.”
By the 18th century, the move away from agrarian living and the subsequent rise of cities and paid employment outside the home meant that “the middle-class father was less of a presence in the home,” though he retained his role of the “ultimate disciplinarian” when he was home. Just a few generations later, Rotundo wrote, “the 19th-century father often lay outside the main emotional currents that flowed within his own home … Family letters of the time provide us with examples of the father’s emotional distance. When fathers wrote to absent sons, for instance, they offered advice and stuck to whatever other business prompted the letter.”
That began to change, however—at least according to Rotundo’s telling—at the end of the 1800s, when, “taking advantage of dwindling demands for patriarchal formality, some men developed new kinds of relationships with their children. Such fathers expressed affection with growing ease, sought close emotional ties with their children, and enjoyed playful hours with sons and daughters.”
In the following century, many fathers stuck with the “emotionally distant, usually at work” fatherhood archetype, but others, especially in the years after World War II, “tried to befriend their children and take a place in the main currents of home life.” In the latter half of the century, Rotundo writes, men began spending more time alongside their children, teaching them home and yard maintenance, coaching their youth sports, and eventually taking on more feeding and care duties as more mothers joined the workforce. And it’s this more modern ideal of fatherhood, in which fathers are expected to play with their kids, keep them entertained, and bond with them emotionally, that arguably facilitates the playful, joking relationship between father and children often observed today—and, in turn, the dad joke.
Of course, this narrative has its critics. As Natasha Cabrera, the director of the Family Involvement Laboratory at the University of Maryland, points out, the stereotype of a dad as a playmate or entertainer of his kids relies on a distinctly heterosexual and middle-class vision of today’s family unit; for many Americans, that just doesn’t apply.
But some of Rotundo’s observations about fathers’ relatively new eagerness to “befriend” their children and increased time spent with them do resonate with Cabrera’s findings. When societal changes came along that changed the roles that mothers and fathers were expected to play, “men had to find new roles, if they weren’t going to be sole providers or disciplinarians or heads of household,” she says. “The roles that we’ve assigned to people since then have been: Dad is the worker, but then he gets home and he plays. Mom has to work, and has to have dinner on the table, and has the emotional role. Mom is everything else.” So there probably are sociological and economic factors that have contributed to the rise of the comic-relief dad, she says.
But that binary, Cabrera adds, can be annoying to some parents. One reason among many: “Moms, we can be very funny, too!”
For as loathsome as dad jokes supposedly are, they remain ... surprisingly popular. The Twitter account @BadDadJokes, which purveys precisely what it advertises (“I was just looking at my ceiling. Not sure if it’s the best ceiling in the world, but it’s definitely up there.”), has more than 46,000 followers. The Twitter account @DadJokeHanSolo, an account that makes corny in-universe Star Wars jokes from the perspective of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, has more than 57,000 (“A Wookiee with a bandaged hand walks into a cantina and says ‘I’m looking for the man who shot my paw’ … This is how I met Chewie”). When a celebrity or a famous athlete, usually one who’s a dad himself, makes a dad joke, bloggers and commentators pounce.
Edgy or dark humor, Dubinsky says, often subverts expectations; it can be offensive or upsetting in its subversion of expectations, and not in a way that everyone understands or appreciates. He points to sketches like Inside Amy Schumer’s “Compliments” sketch and a fake State Farm commercial that circulated online a few years ago as examples—which are funny, to many, but they’re also purposefully shocking and potentially upsetting.
When I asked Dubinsky why, if people hate dad jokes so much, they also seem to love dad jokes so much, he suggested that their appeal could be rooted in the desire to take a momentary break from an increasingly stressful environment, especially online. The political climate and the polarization of discourse, on social media and elsewhere, have “disrupted the way we talk to each other,” Dubinsky says. “We live in an age of a new nastiness.”
“Those are the complete reverse of the warm, cozy dad joke,” Dubinsky says. When he tells a dad joke, he says, “you know that no matter what I say, my joke won’t hurt you—and I want everybody to get my joke, so I’m going to make it so stunningly obvious that anybody can get it.” Which is why dad jokes can be a relief from the viciousness and nihilism of a lot of the other humor that tends to populate social media, he adds.
“It’s sort of like, ‘We’re going to get off this highly polarized, highly agenda-ized humor train and just laugh innocently for a little while,’” he says. “There’s a comfort in that.”