Dad jokes? That’s the way eye roll…’
Language and communication, Social and behavioural

‘Dad jokes? That’s the way eye roll…’

Marc Hye-Knudsen on the pedagogical value of a much-maligned art form.

14 March 2023

A duck walks into a pharmacy and says, ‘Give me some lip balm – and put it on my bill’.

Whether you laughed or not – and I have my doubts – this is, at least technically, a joke. Specifically, it’s what has come to be known as a Dad Joke.

In 2019, the term dad joke made it into Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as ‘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’. This definition raises questions.

How, for one thing, are we to make sense of the apparent popularity of dad jokes given that they are explicitly said to be ‘unfunny’? Even those definitions of the genre that do not specifically use the word ‘unfunny’ include similar slights, calling them ‘lame’ (Dictionary.com), ‘hackneyed’ (OED), or ‘embarrassingly bad’ (Urban Dictionary).

Yet many people clearly find dad jokes funny in some sense. On the popular social network Reddit, the community r/DadJokes, which is specifically dedicated to sharing dad jokes, has a staggering 8.8 million members.

Similarly, Google Books lists no fewer than 300 books solely dedicated to compiling examples of the genre, and the website Buzzfeed alone has an equal number of articles that are just lists of dad jokes.

What, moreover, are we to make of the association of dad jokes with dads? Are fathers indeed more prone to telling dad jokes, and if so, why?

It might seem tempting to simply dismiss dad jokes as bad jokes, at the same time accusing dads of just having a bad sense of humour, but that would be a mistake.

When considered properly, dad jokes are an intricately multi-layered and fascinating phenomenon that reveals a lot not just about how humour and joke-telling work but also about fathers’ psychology and their relationships with their children.

Dad jokes work on at least three levels: as puns, as anti-humour, and as a kind of weaponised anti-humour when dads use them to teasingly annoy and/or embarrass their children.

It is in this last context that the link between dads and dad jokes is to be found…

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Title of book or article First included example of a dad joke
Dad Jokes: The Cheesy Edition(Dad Says Jokes 2020) “My neighbor tiled my roof for free. He said it was on the house.”
World's Greatest Dad Jokes(Brueckner 2019) “Did you hear the joke about paper? It’s tear-able.”
The VERY Embarrassing Book of Dad Jokes (Allen 2012) “Why did the orange stop halfway up the hill? He ran out of juice.”
The Essential Compendium of Dad Jokes (Nowak 2020) “In my career as a lumberjack, I’ve cut exactly 2,325 trees. Every time I chop one down, I keep a LOG.
Dad Jokes! Good, Clean Fun for All Ages! (Niro 2018) “‘Dad, will you hand me my sunglasses?’. ‘As soon as you hand me my dadglasses, Son.’”
“63 Best Dad Jokes Guaranteed to Make You Giggle” (Donavan 2020) “‘Dad, did you get a haircut?’. ‘No, I got them all cut!’”
“70 Best ‘Dad Jokes’ for 2020” (Athlon Sports 2020) “What did the drummer call his twin daughters? Anna one, Anna two!”
“105 Dad Jokes So Bad They're Actually Hilarious” (Larkin 2020) “What do sprinters eat before a race? Nothing, they fast!”
“Here are the 100 Best Corny Dad Jokes Ever!” (Pelzer 2020) “Which bear is the most condescending? A pan-duh!”
“The Big List of the Funniest Dad Jokes” (Webber 2020) “To whoever stole my copy of Microsoft Office, I will find you. You have my Word!”
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Table 1: There are countless books and articles solely dedicated to compiling examples of dad jokes. This table displays the very first example of a dad joke included in ten different such books or articles. As apparent from this selection, dad jokes are distinguished by being inoffensive puns that only violate the pragmatic norm against ambiguity and nothing else.

Taken from Hye-Knudsen, 2021.

Funny, unfunny, or somehow both?

Taking dad jokes seriously requires a theory of what makes something funny (or, alternatively, unfunny).

At least since the Greeks, scholars have debated this issue, but the most promising line of contemporary research in this area, in my estimation, points towards humour being an evolved response to benign norm violations (McGraw & Warren, 2010; Warren & McGraw, 2016).

Dad jokes, in turn, can be defined as puns that only violate a linguistic norm and nothing else (Hye-Knudsen, 2021).

Puns typically violate the conversational norm against ambiguity (Aarons, 2017). In normal conversation, we can safely assume that the person we are talking to will only ever say one thing at a time, with their words thus having a clear, singular meaning (Grice, 1975). With a pun, we violate this norm by deliberately saying at least two different things at the same time.

While virtually all dad jokes are puns, however, it’s not all puns that are dad jokes. The pun is often used as a means of violating another norm of some kind, typically a social norm as with a sexual pun. Consider an example from Mel Brooks’ 1981 film History of the World: Part I.

Brooks plays an ancient Roman who remarks that ‘we’ve got a god for everything. The only thing we don’t have a god for is premature ejaculation… but I hear that it’s coming quickly.’

This is a pun, but it’s not a dad joke since, in addition to violating the linguistic norm against ambiguity, it also violates a social norm by referring to a sensitive topic in an inappropriately crude fashion. Dad jokes are, by contrast, pure, terminally inoffensive puns. This is what makes them wholesome and appropriate for dads to tell around their kids (see Table 1).

It’s also what makes dad jokes so susceptible to accusations of being stupid, lame, and unfunny. Few people are committed enough to the linguistic norms that govern our everyday conversations for their breach to strike them as much of a violation in and of itself.

As such, most people consider dad jokes (i.e., pure puns) a stale form of humour (Beck, 2015). Lacking force as humorous stimuli, puns are, at best, capable of producing a polite chuckle instead of genuine laughter – at worst, condemning groans and eye-rolls.

Yet, telling a joke that is so lame or unfunny that it doesn’t deserve to be told out loud is itself a violation of the norms of joke-telling, and this can in turn make the dad joke funny.

Normally when someone shifts to the humorous mode of discourse, which is typically signalled through a shift in tone or the use of discursive markers (e.g. ‘have you heard the one about…’), this is because they have something genuinely funny to say.

Dad jokes flagrantly violate this norm by following up this shift with a thoroughly tame pun. A dad joke can thus be so stupid, so lame, so unfunny that this paradoxically makes it funny. In this sense, dad jokes can be considered a type of ‘anti-humour’ – humour derived from violating the norms of humour production itself (Luu, 2019). 

Are dad jokes, then, funny or unfunny? The answer to that question can only be: Yes.

What do dad jokes have to do with dads?

Dads appear to have a characteristic way of playing and joking with their children. Fathers are typically more vigorous and challenging in their play than mothers, pushing their children to the limits of what they can handle (Paquette et al., 2003).

In their humour directed towards their children, fathers are similarly more aggressive and teasing (Bokony & Patrick, 2009). Children who are approaching or have begun adolescence appear particularly prone to embarrassment, especially in relation to their parents (Pickhardt, 2013), and dads can exploit this by telling them jokes that are so unfunny that they are embarrassing.

This, of course, is not to say that mothers (or childless men and women, for that matter) are incapable of telling or appreciating dad jokes, but it may explain the association between dads and dad jokes.

Fathers’ characteristic style of playing and joking with their children, in turn, makes sense in light of their distinct personality profile. Across cultures, men, and thereby fathers, appear on average to be more aggressive, more assertive, less agreeable, and less anxious than women, and thereby mothers (Costa et al., 2001; McCrae et al., 2005; Weisberg et al., 2011; Björkqvist, 2018).

Men’s greater aggressiveness and assertiveness than women may push them towards being more aggressive and teasing in their play and humour with their children, while women’s greater agreeableness and anxiety may in turn impede them in this regard for fear of accidentally hurting their children physically or emotionally, hence their distinct styles of play and humour.

That connection between dad jokes and the male psyche is cemented in the concept’s analogues in other languages and cultures.

While ‘dad jokes’ is the undisputed term for the phenomenon in Anglo-American culture, the Japanese have a similar concept, oyaji gyagu, which can be translated to ‘old men’s gags’ or ‘middle-aged men’s gags’ (Luu, 2019). Danish culture has now absorbed the term ‘dad jokes’ (far jokes in Danish), but the Danes also have two older terms for the phenomenon: onkel humor (‘uncle humour’) and morfar vittigheder (‘grandfather jokes’).

The common denominator here is men of a certain age – old enough to have children around them who can scoff and roll their eyes in embarrassment. 

That fathers use dad jokes to deliberately embarrass their children in this way is referenced in the titles of many of the books that compile examples of the genre like Dad Jokes for New Dads: Embarrass Your Kids Early! (Niro, 2020) and Dad Jokes: 60 Dad Jokes That Will Make Your Kids Cringe (Duran, 2020).

Dad jokes, when used by a dad in this way to teasingly embarrass his children, can be considered a kind of ‘weaponised anti-humour’ (Hye-Knudsen, 2021).

That being said, dad jokes seem perfectly tailored to the modern father figure, a markedly softer and less domineering kind of patriarch than that of earlier eras. The dad in question has to be willing to embarrass himself – to play the fool – in order to vicariously embarrass his kids.

Do dad jokes serve a pedagogic function?

At first blush, fathers’ more aggressive style of physical play and their teasing style of humour with their children might seem cruel, but that would be missing the point.

By continually pushing and challenging their children, fathers’ style of rough-and-tumble play supports their children’s physical and cognitive development in important ways while teaching them to regulate their behaviours and emotions (Flanders et al., 2009; StGeorge & Freeman, 2017; StGeorge et al., 2021).

Ideally, fathers’ rougher style of joking fulfils 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 (see Gray, 2013).

In light of this, it is worth considering dad jokes as 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’re embarrassing, fathers may push their children’s limits for how much embarrassment they can handle.

They show their children that embarrassment isn’t fatal. For a child who is approaching or has entered adolescence, which appears to be a sensitive period for sociocultural processing (Blakemore & Mills, 2014), this is an immensely valuable lesson. In this sense, dad jokes may have a positive pedagogical effect, toughening up the kids who are begrudgingly exposed to them.

For this reason, dad jokes are perfectly suited to our modern era. In contemporary Western culture, which rewards individualism over traditional conformity (Henrich, 2020), it’s 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.

As one dad puts it: ‘I think it’s important to embarrass your kids. Or, to be more specific, I think it’s important to do things traditionally viewed as embarrassing until your kids are basically immune to the effects. After years and years of being exposed to eye-roll-inducing humour, with a complete disregard for what anybody else thinks, kids will have nothing greater left to fear. They’ll gradually build up a strong immunity to judgement and embarrassment, and actually feel empowered to be themselves’ (Billingsley, 2019).

Of course, most dads who tell dad jokes won’t intellectualise what they are doing like this. Most have no idea why they like telling dad jokes. Instead, they’re simply moved by their characteristic personality traits to tease their children, with dad jokes being one of the methods by which they do this.

In this way, dad jokes resemble the rough-and-tumble play that fathers have instinctively been moved to engage their children in since before the dawn of our species, without knowing the important function that such roughhousing plays in their children’s development.

Among non-human primates, fathers also love playing rough with their offspring (Murray et al., 2016). While dad jokes are ideally suited to the modern era and the distinctly modern father figure, the phenomenon thus builds on inclinations that go back literally millions of years.

So to all the dads out there who love telling dad jokes to your kids: don’t let their groans, their eye-rolls, or their palpable irritation stop you. You’re partaking in a long and proud tradition, and your embarrassingly awful jokes may even do them some good. Keep repeating the same old stale puns, year-in and year-out.

Through painful repetition, you get to experience the same old joke go through waves of being unfunny and then so unfunny that it becomes funny. One day, you may overhear your children spontaneously telling the same joke, perhaps when they themselves have become parents. This, if nothing else, is concrete evidence that our input as parents does have an impact.

Dad jokes and cringe comedy

Traditionally, embarrassment humour has mined someone else’s embarrassment (e.g. that of a fictional character) for the amusement of its audience. In contrast, ‘cringe comedy’ aims to evoke not just the positive emotion of amusement in audiences but also the negative emotion of vicarious embarrassment (Hye-Knudsen, 2018).

A perfect example is Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s sitcom The Office (2001-2003), which invites audiences not just to laugh at but also cringe from vicarious embarrassment at the constant faux pas of its socially clueless protagonist David Brent.

Dad jokes are related to cringe comedy, but they are not a subspecies hereof. The stereotypical scenario of a dad joke involves a dad telling an offensively lame pun to embarrass his children, which he in turn derives amusement from.

Like cringe comedies, then, dad jokes are aimed at evoking embarrassment, but the children cringing at the joke are not its ultimate audience. The real audience of a dad joke is in fact the joke-teller, the dad, who suffers no cringe but rather delights in the embarrassment of his offspring.

About the author

Marc Hye-Knudsen is a humour researcher and the lab manager at Aarhus University’s Cognition and Behavior Lab.
[email protected]

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