‘Hi Terrible, I’m Dad’: Why Corny Jokes (Even the Good Ones) Get No Respect
Dad jokes rule. In almost every other context, “dad” as a prefix pretty much means “shitty,” but dad jokes are a whole different thing. Like, they’re shitty, but they’re good shitty. Shitty by design. Dad bods develop through age and neglect; dad jokes develop by being honed to perfection, sprinkled with a particular kind of not giving a shit.
For those unfamiliar with the expression, “dad jokes” generally refer to what used to just be known as jokes, puns or wordplay — generally a gag based around two similar-sounding but different terms. Someone goes to a library and says they’re looking for books on turtles. “Hardbacks?” says the librarian. “Yes,” comes the reply, “and little heads.” That kind of thing. Nurses like red crayons because they often have to draw blood. It’s great stuff.
But the world seems to disagree.
Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first English dictionary and one of Britain’s most celebrated intellectuals of all time, viewed puns as the lowest form of wit. John Dryden, a poet and satirist who saw humor as a powerful weapon that could be leveled against the establishment, saw no value in puns whatsoever, accusing those who enjoyed making them of “torturing one word a thousand ways.” Victor Hugo — author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — once wrote of them, “Le calembour est la fiente de l’esprit qui vole”: Puns are, basically, bird shit.
How has this come to be, though? And are they seen as crappy everywhere?
“It’s definitely the case in modern Western culture that puns are seen as inferior,” says Salvatore Attardo of Texas A&M University, Commerce. “I’m familiar with Italian, French, Spanish, English and related cultures, and that’s true across the board. I’m not familiar with Slavic literature, etc., but I’m willing to bet that it’s gonna be the same. I don’t know if anybody has ever done the research of looking at, for example, African languages to see if there’s the same thing. But within our culture, that’s definitely the case.”
It wasn’t always like this. “Every culture, as far as we know, has some form of wordplay,” says Attardo, who has written extensively on the subject. “Every language has syllables, and as soon as you have syllables strung in a row, you can switch them around. That’s universal.” However, he explains, this doesn’t mean all languages use it for humor. In some cultures, for instance, wordplay is used for magical, symbolic or religious purposes. “In the gospel, when Jesus calls Peter his rock, there is a pun in there — not in the English translation, but originally, with the Latin word petrus, meaning rock. But when Jesus does that, he’s not doing it to be hilarious and deliver a dad joke, it’s more about it all having meaning attached to it, and Peter’s role being preordained.”
The repeated sounds in the medieval magic word “abracadabra” aren’t an accident — it’s a form of wordplay, not for humorous purposes, but mystical ones.
There are puns in the Latin poetry of Horace and Cicero, and Shakespeare is littered with them. In Romeo and Juliet, the dying Mercutio says, “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man,” a shitty gag by any measure, but especially as part of someone’s final words. If your best friend had been stabbed and was dying in your arms and that was what they chose to spend their last few minutes doing, you’d be pissed.
“By our modern perception, that’s completely inappropriate,” says Attardo. “My guess is that a pun like that would be seen as clever and layered by audiences at the time rather than something to be laughed at.”
The big shift in the public perception of puns from clever to crappy came, he suggests, with the rise of romanticism in the 18th century. “Within the romantic ideology, literature is the expression of a deep meaningful feeling, and the writer is a bard that communicates these profound thoughts. Because of this, we get the perception that humor is inferior to tragedy. And then, within humor, puns are easy, and therefore, the worst of the worst.”
Modern comedy, particularly stand-up, values the authentic, something puns are anything but. When someone delivers a monologue, there is at least the illusion of spontaneity and passion — while rationally we know as an audience that this is pre-written material, agonized over and honed to perfection, we go along with it as though it’s spilling straight from the comic’s brain in real time. The romanticized idea of the comedian as warrior-poet, truth-teller and iconoclast is so much sexier and more exciting than someone sitting down, possibly on a toilet, and thinking of two words that sound a bit like each other.
Nobody gets famous doing dad jokes. America’s most celebrated one-liner comedians — the Mitch Hedbergs and Steven Wrights of the world — are more surreal and conceptual, building brief but vivid pictures and crafting compelling on-stage personas rather than just rolling out joke after joke. Whenever the idea of joke theft comes up in the news, there are always people arguing that good material should be so entwined with your personality and character that it is unstealable — again, the antithesis of dad jokes, which are endlessly stealable, retellable and fuck-upable. The only form of wit generally seen as an even lower art form than dad jokes is prop comedy, which is the same thing to an even more extreme degree — you haven’t just sat down and written that material, you’ve spent time rendering it into three dimensions, you worthless clown.
But why dads? The term “dad joke” is pretty new, only really coming into common use around a decade ago (the r/DadJokes subreddit was founded in 2011). Attardo, who is currently working on a book about how the internet has changed humor, posits that, rather than being the kind of jokes dads tell, dad jokes are the kind of jokes that dads — the least online people there are — will understand. For the record, Attardo’s favorite dad joke is, “Someone told me I had no sense of direction. I said, ‘How dare you?’ and then I right.”
“They’re wholesome,” he says. “They’re not the disturbing memes the alt-right use, or the cringe humor the internet is filled with. They’re wholesome jokes you can tell in front of anyone, the antithesis of the angst and super-aggression a lot of internet humor is based around.”
Dad jokes may never be intellectually respected, but they are essential — repeatable, shareable, comprehensible gags that can be enjoyed by huge swathes of people, whether at face value or with a degree of irony involved. The net result is the same — making people laugh. If you’re laughing at how crappy a joke is, you’re laughing at the joke. It worked. You might not have wanted it to, and you might consider yourself above it all, but the joke made you laugh, goddamn it.
The other reason there isn’t a lot of academic literature on dad jokes is, of course, obvious. Any time anyone tries to interview a dad-joke enthusiast about the subject and says, “Hi, I’m studying how people use jokes,” they’re met with, “Hi, Studying How People Use Jokes, I’m Dad.”
Long may it continue.