I visited my older brother in his hometown this past weekend, and as he was driving us somewhere we passed a cemetery. ‘People are dying to get in there,’ he said, nodding seriously towards it. I couldn’t believe it. The old dad joke.
My brother and I are both old dads, and more importantly, we had an old dad. This was a joke he used to make. Either that, or he’d ask, when we passed a cemetery, ‘Do you know how many dead people are in there?’ No. ‘All of them.’
My friend Curt had a dad who was a terrible jokester. We would be looking out on a rainy day and he’d say, ‘If this rain keeps up, it won’t come down.’ Or we’d be going fishing, and the lady in the bait and tackle shop would ask, ‘Do you have worms?’ ‘Yes,’ he’d say, ‘but I’m going fishing anyway.’
Why is it that dads feel the need to share dumb jokes? Do they consider themselves especially witty? Or do they just hope to be the family’s spirit lifter and morale booster? Maybe it’s because of our busy lives. Dad may only see his wife and kids for a few minutes in the morning before rushing off to work, and if he feels the need to make an impression as someone charming or fun, a joke is an easy short-form device for accomplishing that. Yes, a large percentage of moms are also rushing off to work, but let’s face it—their time is filled with making sure the kids have lunch money, or lunches, with finalizing details about when they need to be dropped off or picked up from lessons, team practice, doctor appointments, and other family business. Dads try to reserve this time for the charm offensive.
Dad jokes tend more towards the shorter formats than long story jokes: knock-knock jokes, or why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road jokes. A story joke takes too much time, requiring the kids to lift their faces from their phones longer than is reasonable.
FAMILY MEMBER: Who’s there?
DAD: Britney Spears
FAMILY MEMBER: Britney Spears who?
FAMILY MEMBER: Who’s there?
DAD: Oops! I did it again . . .
That’s the perfect dad joke. It’s brief, and with its reference to Britney Spears, so-o yesterday. But it’s also funny.
My specialty has long been the man-walks-into-a-bar joke, from the classics, like:
A duck walks into a bar and orders a beer. He says, ‘Put it on my bill.’
To more modern takes, such as:
A jumper cable walks into a bar and orders a beer. ‘Okay,’ says the bartender, ‘just don’t start anything.’
A termite walks into a bar and asks, ‘Where is the bar tender?’
Everyone regards these as some of the stupidest jokes going, but they also always laugh. It takes a special kind of person to tell jokes, knowing they are dumb jokes—and often, that person is a dad.
I wonder if this is more a modern phenomenon? I do not, for instance, recall my grandfather telling jokes. He was a Baptist minister, so that may explain it, but he was altogether quieter and more somber. Here is the only joke I ever heard him tell:
Two Texas ranchers are arguing about who has the bigger ranch. One says, ‘I can get in my truck, and drive from sunup to sundown, and still not reach the end of my ranch.’ The other one says, ‘Yep, I used to have a truck like that.’
It’s a story joke, though a short one, and doesn’t necessarily fit the mold. But I can’t imagine the same man who deadpanned every Sunday about Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles saying something as trivial as, ‘Knock-knock,’ or ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’
I recently visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder home in Mansfield, Missouri. Nice place to see, if you’re at all interested in the Little House books, or American literature in general. One of the most important artifacts in the museum is Pa’s Fiddle. That’s right, the fiddle Pa played all the time when Laura and her sisters were growing up, playing and singing old songs to entertain the family and take their minds off hard times, hard work, hunger, cold, darkness, and worse. I remember also ‘Pa’s happy song,’ which he would sing, ironically, at times when there was the least to be happy about. It comes up a few times in The Long Winter, when one blizzard after another sets in. Pa will come in from doing the morning chores in -40° weather, and start singing about being a happy little sunflower. Pa also told funny stories. In the long evenings on the prairies the girls would beg him to tell their favorites. It is Pa as general entertainment, morale booster, stress reliever. This role has been reduced, in modern times, to dads telling dumb jokes, but it’s still the same function.
There is also the likelihood that most dads feel they are giving their kids fodder for a successful social life by supplying jokes. I always imagined my daughter, despite the eye rolls and weary sighs she offered in response to most of my jokes, telling them to kids at school that very day. ‘Hee-hee-hee,’ her friends would laugh, ‘where do you get all these jokes?’ She’d never say, but we shared the unspoken secret. We all have our fantasies.
My friend Al was always terrible at telling jokes. He was so bad that sometimes he would present them as a sort of outline, providing all the key elements, then supply the punchline, and tell us to put it together for ourselves. Despite this inability, his daughter grew up to be a well-adjusted and charming young woman. Go figure.
I don’t know what got me going on like this about dad jokes, except that when I heard my brother make the old cemetery joke, it hit me that I also make the same joke, or fight the desire to make it, like a spirit that takes possession of me, every time I pass a graveyard. That’s the dad in me, my own dad, and most every dad I’ve known.