A Dad Defends Dad Jokes

Last Sunday morning, during parental small talk at a kids’ birthday party in Brooklyn, one dad told me he had just “cobbled together” summer camps for his child, to which I replied that camps in the area are very “cobble-able.” Sensing a prime opportunity, his eyebrows rose. “Cobble Hill,” he said, referencing a nearby neighborhood.

Then we paused, heads shaking with a smidgen of shame. We knew what had just happened. Dad jokes had been committed.

What is it about procreating that turns men into miserable comics? In honor of Father’s Day, I’d like to float a theory while also making the case for the virtue of our much-mocked brand of humor.

Dads have, of course, been telling bad jokes forever, but the term “dad joke” didn’t enter the lexicon until the past decade. In the last few years, it has become a ubiquitous if affectionate insult online, and even its own booming comedy genre, the subject of popular Twitter and Instagram accounts and a cottage industry of books with titles like “101 So Bad They’re Good Dad Jokes” and “Exceptionally Bad Dad Jokes.” (No fewer than eight dad joke books have been published since 2017.).

I’m a comedy critic, so being a dad can seem like an occupational hazard. It may be professional suicide to admit, but since having children, I often find myself making lame puns as well as poop jokes. In subway stations, I have been known to silently mouth words to my daughters when a loud train goes by until the noise quiets and I add: “ … and that’s the secret to life.”

Look, I’m not proud.

The demise of a dad’s sense of humor begins in early parenthood while workshopping jokes in front of babies, tiny philistines who think peekaboo is a hilarious bit of misdirection. It isn’t long before these drooling rubes turn into trash-talking toddlers and fall in love with the scatological. Like so many lazy comics, we parents pander. If jokes work, they stay in the set. Gradually, we become hooked on cheap laughs. Some of us even delude ourselves into thinking we are actually funny.

This may sound like I’m blaming children for dad jokes, but only partly. Once dads develop this new sensibility, it doesn’t evolve, while our audience does. When their humor matures, they mock ours and, in their search for a critical language to express their contempt, the dad joke was born.

Some fathers balk at the term. Earlier this year, Andrew Beaujon wrote in Washingtonian magazine that it carries “the sting of ageism.” Perhaps. But one of the pleasures of this humor is it gives fathers license to joke like they did as small children. Part of this is nostalgia, but not entirely. The most common dad joke relies on puns. (“What has two butts and kills people? An assassin.”) To redeem them, you needn’t point out that Shakespeare used such jokes. Just listen to the raucous crowd at the popular Punderdome contest, essentially an excuse for young people without children to tell higher quality dad jokes.

Dad jokes are also the training wheels for cringe comedy. Part of their purpose is to embarrass and create discomfort, a benign troll. The goal often is to get not a laugh but a groan. It’s probably no accident that the oldest collection of dad jokes you can buy on Amazon is from an English writer (Ian Allen, who wrote “The Very Embarrassing Book of Dad Jokes” in 2012), since the British comic tradition has always been best tuned to the delight of embarrassment.

One appealing aspect of dad jokes is how they can be self-mocking and teasing simultaneously. An ironic distance is baked into them. No wonder they’re popular among Generation X parents.

But they have deeper roots. Dad jokes tend to be clean, generic and short, requiring no context or explanation. In many ways, they are throwbacks to the days when comics leaned on bits that started with a trio of religious figures walking into a bar, or evergreen one-liners that began with, “Did you hear the one about … ?”

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