Both relished and reviled, treated like the tuna casserole you ate too much as a kid but now can’t stop making as an adult, the family tradition known as the dad joke has recently experienced a nationwide appreciation. Not everyone’s laughing, but that seems to be the point: the teller entertains himself and enjoys eliciting a reaction other than laughter. Dad jokes take many forms; they often involve word play and mildly annoying the listener. For The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters, whose own father tells her dad jokes, explores the way this particular type of humor seems to work and where it came from. Thankfully, it isn’t just dads and Americans who are to blame.
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 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’redeadpanning 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.”