The Origins of Dads, Jokes, and Dad Jokes
This is a guest post from Marc Hye-Knudsen. Read his article in ESIC 5.2: “Dad Jokes and the Deep Roots of Fatherly Teasing.”
What do sprinters eat before a race? Nothing, they fast.
If that joke made you chuckle instead of rolling your eyes, then you may be a dad. At any rate, you are in the minority. Or at least, that is what seems to be implied by the concept of “dad jokes,” a term that has become popular enough in recent years to make it into the dictionaries.
This is how Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines dad jokes: “a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.” That definition raises a number of questions.
Firstly, how are we to make sense of the apparent popularity of dad jokes given that they are explicitly said to be “unfunny”? Millions of people seek them out and share them avidly with each other on websites like Twitter and Reddit. What gives? Are dad jokes funny, unfunny, or somehow both?
Secondly, what are we to make of the association between dads and dad jokes? One possible answer is that dad jokes are simply bad jokes and that dads have a bad sense of humor, but I argue against this interpretation in my new paper for this journal, “Dad Jokes and the Deep Roots of Fatherly Teasing.”
Dad jokes might seem like a strange topic for a journal called Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, but to understand the dad joke I argue that we have to look at the deep roots of each of its constituent concepts, dads and jokes. In this post, I will walk you through my central argument.
THE ORIGINS OF HUMOR
The first thing we have to ask ourselves is this: What makes something funny?
Humor is an evolved psychological response of ours, consisting of the positive emotion of humorous amusement and the physical tendency to laugh. Its evolutionary origins lie in mammalian social play, which often takes the form of play fighting (“rough-and-tumble play”). Indeed, a distinct homologue of human laughter can be found in the laugh-like panting vocalization that accompanies the so-called “play face” of some of our closest related primates like chimpanzees.
In rough-and-tumble play, the participants will play at benignly violating each other’s physical boundaries by wrestling, chasing, biting, fleeing, and the like. This allows young animals to practice these vital skills in a safe setting while also serving as a medium for social bonding. Play signals like the “play face” serve during rough-and-tumble play to signal that all physical violations are benign, ensuring that the play-fighting does not escalate into actual violence.
Humor is a lot like rough-and-tumble play, except instead of only consisting of benign physical violations it has been expanded during human evolution to include all kinds of benign violations, like violations of linguistic norms (e.g., puns and wordplay), social norm violations (e.g., farting in public), or moral norm violations (e.g., dark humor). In the face of a benign violation, amusement motivates us to explore and play with its implications while our laughter invites others to join us.
DAD JOKES AS LAME PUNS
At their most basic level, dad jokes are simply lame puns.
Puns violate the linguistic norm against ambiguity. During normal conversation, we can assume that the person we are talking to will only say one thing at a time, their words thus having a singular unambiguous meaning. This norm is an essential prerequisite for human communication. With a pun like the one about what sprinters eat before a race, we violate that norm by saying at least two different things at the same time for humorous effect.
While all dad jokes are puns, however, not all puns are dad jokes. Often a pun is merely a means of violating some other norm for humorous effect, typically a social norm, as with sexual puns. Take this one: “My love life is terrible. The last time I was inside a woman was when I went to the Statue of Liberty.” This is a pun but not a dad joke since it violates the norm against ambiguity in the service of violating a social norm by broaching an intimate matter (i.e., sex) in a crass manner.
Dad jokes are puns which are characterized by only violating the linguistic norm against ambiguity and nothing else. This is what makes them wholesome, allowing dads to tell them around their kids, but it is also what makes them so susceptible to accusations of being “lame” or “unfunny” since most people are not invested enough in the linguistic norms that govern our everyday conversations to register their breach as much of a violation in and of itself. This makes them stale cases of humor.
DAD JOKES AS ANTI-HUMOR
We seem to have arrived at the idea that dad jokes are unfunny. But not so fast!
Telling a joke that only violates the norm against ambiguity and nothing else is itself a violation of the norms of joke-telling. When we switch to the humorous mode of discourse, signaled through a shift in tone or a discursive marker like “Have you heard the one about…?”, it is an implicit part of our social contract with our conversational partner that what we are about to say is funny enough to warrant being told. A dad joke violates this implicit contract.
The very act of telling a joke that is so painfully lame that it does not warrant being told, thereby violating the norms of joke-telling, may in turn make the dad joke funny. This makes dad jokes a type of anti-humor—that is, humor which relies on violating the norms of humor production itself. In other words, a dad joke can be so stupid, so lame, so unfunny that this paradoxically makes it funny.
Beyond being lame puns and cases of anti-humor, telling a thoroughly lame dad joke to someone may also be a way to teasingly annoy them for one’s own amusement, making dad jokes a kind of weaponized anti-humor. It is here that the relation between dads and dad jokes is to be found, since fathers appear to have a predilection for teasing their children.
DAD JOKES AS WEAPONIZED ANTI-HUMOR
Fathers appear to have a distinct way of both playing and joking with their children.
In play, fathers are typically rougher and more intense than mothers, pushing their children to the limits of what they can handle. Similarly, they are also more aggressive and teasing in their humor directed towards their children. Telling a dad joke that is so embarrassingly bad that it makes their children roll their eyes at them is one of the methods of teasing at their disposal.
Children who are approaching or have entered adolescence are famously sensitive to embarrassment, particularly vicarious embarrassment in relation to their parents, whom they are in the gradual process of decoupling from to establish an independent identity for themselves. Fathers can exploit this by telling such a majestically lame dad joke that it makes their children feel vicarious embarrassment in relation to them. They are an ideal target of dad jokes.
None of this is to say that mothers or women cannot or do not tell dad jokes, but the association between dads and dad jokes at least makes sense in light of their rougher and more teasing style of playing and joking. Their style of playing and joking in turn makes sense in light of their personality profile, as they are on average more aggressive, more assertive, less agreeable, and less anxious than mothers, and as such likely less afraid of accidentally hurting their child physically or emotionally.
THE DEEP ROOTS OF FATHERLY TEASING
There is a deep connection between being a father and playing rough.
Fathers have been engaging in rough-and-tumble play with their children since before the origin of our species. In fact, among many non-human primates it is just about the only aspect of their offspring’s upbringing in which they participate. Humans, of course, are different: human children require inordinate care and resources which makes caregivers besides their mothers necessary. This is the origin of human fatherhood.
Yet, human fathers still remain less involved than mothers on average in all aspects of child-rearing, with one exception: rough-and-tumble play. Fathers’ distinct style of play makes them ideal play partners for their children. Numerous studies indicate that fathers’ rougher and more challenging style of playing with their children has numerous benefits, supporting their children’s physical and cognitive development while teaching them to regulate their behaviors and emotions.
Ideally, fathers’ rougher style of joking fulfills a similar function: by teasingly striking at their children’s egos and emotions without teetering over into bullying, fathers build their children’s resilience and train them to withstand minor attacks and bouts of negative emotion without getting worked up or acting out, teaching them impulse control and emotional regulation. Dad jokes are a distinctly gentle type of such teasing, perfectly tailored to the modern Western father figure.
DAD JOKES FOR MODERN DADS
Dad jokes can thus be a pedagogical tool that may serve a beneficial function for the very children who roll their eyes at them. By continually telling their children jokes that are so bad that they are embarrassing, fathers may push their children’s limits for how much embarrassment they can handle. Dad jokes impart the important lesson that embarrassment is not lethal.
This is another way in which dad jokes are a type of fatherly teasing that is perfectly suited to our modern era. In contemporary Western culture, which rewards individualism over traditional conformity, it can be a boon to be able to withstand the short-term embarrassment that comes from violating social norms in order to stand by one’s authentic self despite external social pressure.
The lesson that dad jokes impart, namely that embarrassment can be overcome, may be particularly useful for the adolescents at whom the dad joke is stereotypically aimed, since they are the people most afraid of being embarrassed. Dad jokes may thus be a force for good beyond being a source of groans. If you would like to see this argument developed in full, I suggest reading my paper.
Marc Hye-Knudsen is a research assistant in the Department of English, Aarhus University. His research focuses on the cognitive and evolutionary underpinnings of humor and its various manifestations in film, television, and literature.