The Secret Behind ‘Cringe’ Dad Jokes

Learn what the classic dad joke shows about what it means to be a father.

My favorite recent SNL sketch is called “Baby Shower.” Brie Larson, pregnant, is surrounded by a group of moms who all have the same hairstyle — you know, the one that’s “a soft waterfall in the front but knives in the back.”

Sasheer Zamata’s character asks Larson’s: “So…when are you becoming a mom?” When Larson responds with her due date, the others correct her — that’s when she will be having a child. She will only become a “true mother,” they explain, when she gets “the cut,” — or, rather, when “the cut” chooses you.

Most of us can relate to Larson’s character, who protests that she’ll never have a “chunky highlight” — but, of course, by the end of the sketch she not only has “the cut,” but loves it, and can’t wait to add some fake fruit to her living room.

The transformation to full-fledged “dad” can be just as dramatic. My “the cut” moment was the first time I found myself in the middle of telling a dad joke. I had already been a dad for four years, but the dad joke, strenuously resisted for so long, eventually found me. Where, after all, should a king keep his armies, if not in… his sleevies?

My daughter laughed riotously, and I took advantage of the distraction to slip her into her hated winter coat. She immediately repeated the joke to her preschool teacher after drop-off. My day was off to a good start, but I knew that something had happened — that I wasn’t the person I had been when I woke up (very early) that morning.

But why exactly do dads tell dad jokes? However much this sounds like a set up for, well, a dad joke, I think it’s a question worth asking.

“Dad jokes” can be told by anyone, but there’s no denying that, in our time and place, dads are usually the ones who tell them. Maybe the more interesting related question has to do with why people find dad jokes so repulsive. After all, dad jokes are fine — if you had to make them somewhere, you’d do it in a satisfactory. There is even a dad joke explaining what they are and how they work with surprising economy: When does a joke become a “dad joke?” When it becomes “apparent!”

Dad jokes can happen when you spend a lot of time entertaining children: Kids love them when they’re small, and love to hate them as they get a little older. In a sense, the dad joke is no mystery — it’s humor for children, and if you don’t find them all that funny, in part it’s because they’re not intended for you.

But is there more to it? There are plenty of things intended for children that don’t attract our groans and eyerolls in quite the same way.

The dad joke traffics in something that looks like regular cleverness, but instead of a deep insight into some ambiguity in the nature of things, derives its meager power from homophones, puns, and clichés. Dad jokes play with words, but they’re an underhand pitch. They’re — and again, as a dad, it doesn’t bother me to say this — the perfect example of what we like to call “cringe.”

Most of the time, telling a joke or turning someone’s words around on them is a way to gain a small amount of freedom or independence, while also making others feel good. Winning a verbal sparring match or making someone laugh interrupts the serious work of speech to produce agreement or persuasion. Jokes, at their best, are invitations to shared understanding of the goodness of human life; at their worst, they’re an exercise in cruelty or debasement.

But the dad joke is sort of uncanny — it looks like a joke, but fails in being truly funny. If jokes make us laugh, dad jokes make us regret laughing. Dad jokes make people uncomfortable because they’re mildly embarrassing for the person who tells them.

When someone makes you laugh, they’re showing you’re not as self-sufficient as you might think you are — if you were, you wouldn’t lose control, however briefly, in laughter. The dad joke subverts the basic elements of humor: if jokes are counterintuitive, dwelling in ambiguities, helping us delight in the joker’s prowess, the dad joke is mildly painful because it’s obvious, and doesn’t necessarily connect its subject matter to the punchline.

Dads use these jokes to put themselves out there so that the little person listening to the joke can become knowingly complicit, and maybe learn something about how to be funny. But they are perplexing because they expose the teller in a way directly opposite to the regular functioning of a joke. If wit allows us a certain autonomy, dad jokes make us vulnerable. A dad joke is an un-joke because your goal is not your own freedom, but someone else’s.

Oddly enough, being a dad is just like that. I’ve never felt as exposed as I did when the nurse handed me my first daughter: I didn’t know what to do, and then I panicked because I thought I was supposed to know.

But what I first experienced as failure and fear, I’ve since come to realize is a pretty accurate assessment of the situation of being a dad. Contemporary adulthood is organized around the assumption of a steady increase in competence, responsibility, autonomy. But becoming a parent, perhaps a culmination of this movement, puts your dependence on others in stark relief: Having to care for someone else can make you realize, paradoxically, how much you depend on others.

There are cultural stereotypes that insist fatherhood is about embodying and imparting “manly” self-sufficiency. But I’ve always found this notion to be totally at odds with what raising children actually requires. “Father” — like “teacher” or “leader”— is a term of relation: you become one only through and with someone else. Semantically, but also in fact, you become a dad only through a net of relationships with others.

These relationships make you vulnerable because you see your good as intimately bound up with the good of others, but also because you are less able — and less inclined — to look out for yourself. By the same token, whatever strength or insight one gains from parenthood doesn’t come from self-assertion, but from a frank appraisal of human weakness and thus human possibility.

So if we’re uncomfortable with dad jokes, it might be because we’re uncomfortable with the messiness and vulnerability of human interdependence. Dads aren’t cool because they’re in on the secret that even the coolest people need others to get by, that independence can be best purchased by recognizing our limitations. And, hey, what could be cooler or funnier than not actually caring what people think?

Regardless, I’m not going to stop telling dad jokes any time soon. I love telling Dad jokes — sometimes he laughs.

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