Julia Hayton
June 21, 2015 7:00 am

When I was first thinking about the cultural importance of dad jokes, I tweeted about realizing I had a lot of opinions about puns. Within 30 seconds, multiple people had replied with the same portmanteau: “opunions.”

I know, I know, I can hear you groaning from over here. But trust me when I say: this moment was a perfect illustration of everything that is beautiful about terrible jokes. Since it’s Father’s Day, it’s only appropriate to mount a defense of puns, knock-knock jokes, and all the other jokes scraped off the bottom of the comedy barrel.

First, a quick definition of terms: I’m thinking of “dad jokes” as the genre of jokes you can safely tell seven-year-olds. You don’t have to be a dad to tell a dad joke, and your dad may not be the biggest dad joke teller in your life; for better or for worse, dad jokes are a universal phenomenon. Knock-knock jokes, puns, and “Can you make me a sandwich?” “POOF, you’re a sandwich!” all qualify. If you tell a G-rated joke to an adult audience and they go “UGHHHH” and throw french fries at you, that’s a dad joke. (Bonus points for dad joke authenticity if you then shout “GEDDIT?” and elbow your helpless listeners.)

For all the skeptics out there, here are  reasons to embrace the noble art of the dad joke.

Dad jokes are the first ones you ever learn

My mother remembers the first joke I ever told. We were in the driveway at night when I was about four years old, and she was pointing out constellations. “See, there’s Orion’s belt!”

“It’s a good thing he has a belt,” I replied. “Otherwise, his pants would fall down!”

My mother, an accomplished dad joke teller herself, must have been so proud. (Or so I tell myself.)

I wasn’t the only kid to cut her teeth on dad jokes. Dad jokes are the building blocks of humor, the first jokes we’re told and the first jokes we tell. They’re part of how kids learn language; not just the basic words and grammar, but also idioms and metaphors, the places where our literal words and our figurative meanings intersect. Puns are jokes with training wheels, designed to let kids explore without fear.

Take a classic dad joke: “Why did they throw the clock out the window? To see time fly!” Sure, everyone gets sick of this joke by 3rd grade, but it’s a good example of how dad jokes not only teach kids idioms, they also help kids see the world in a different way. Dad jokes let kids take the concrete objects they know about already (like a belt, or a clock) and link them to new and abstract concepts (like constellations, or time flying). It takes a leap of imagination to look at a field of stars and see a man who, just like the rest of us, might need a little help keeping his pants up, and dad jokes helped me bridge that gap. (Dad jokes, you’re a star! *ducks*)

Dad jokes are friendly and sweet

Unlike jokes that rely on stereotypes or making fun of people dad jokes don’t need to be jokes on someone. Whole genres of jokes are designed to draw a line between Us and Them. We do this; they do that; they’re different and probably stupid and isn’t that hilarious?

Dad jokes don’t rely on exclusion for a punchline. There are no losers with puns, no Us and Them. (If anyone’s the butt of a dad joke, it’s the teller, and that’s an exclusively opt-in role.)

Because dad jokes are ideologically neutral, they’re also perfect for defusing tension within contentious or disparate groups. Next Thanksgiving, when you see that Aunt Pilar is about to reach across the mashed potatoes and throttle Uncle Frank, you can interrupt with a quick “What did the bartender say to the carrot?*” and avert familial homicide. Horrible puns: our greatest diplomatic heroes?! We report, you decide!

*“Sorry, we don’t serve food here.”

Dad jokes are an invitation to have fun and be silly.

This gets back to how I opened my Arguments for the Defense; when you make a dad joke, you’re inviting–nay, begging–your listeners to join in. When I make a horrible pun, for every “UUUGHHHHHH” or “Julia.” I get back, I also get someone picking up the thread of the joke and running with it (until we all run it over a cliff and stomp it into the ground [much like this metaphor]).

Making a dad joke lights up a neon sign: FRIVOLITY WELCOME. A lot of how we talk online suffers from a lack of context: we can’t see people’s faces or hear the tones of their voices, so how can you tell whether someone’s “Oh, man,” is said with disgust, or amusement, or resignation, or affection? It’s a constant guessing game.

A dad joke, in contrast, conveys an unmistakable message; like a vendor hawking his wares in a public market, a dad joke shouts “HEEEEEERE’S DUMB JOKES, GET YER EYE-ROLLING JOKES RIGHT HERE.” This public goofiness tells everyone that they’re welcome to join in. A social media pun swarm might sound like the seventh circle of hell to some of you, but for those of us with terminal dad joke habits, it provides a much-needed silliness outlet.

“Sure, kids need silliness outlets, but you’re not seven years old anymore,” I can imagine you saying. “So what’s your excuse?” Only that seven-year-olds remember what adults sometimes forget: finding puns is fun. Goofiness is its own reward.

And although we’re focusing on G-rated puns, there are other options; Shakespeare was a dirty pun virtuoso, so if you prefer your puns a little more adult, you’re in highly respectable company. (“Company,” see, because Shakespeare was a playwright and–*ducks again*)

Dad jokes will never go out of style (because they were never in style in the first place)

They’ll never be cool or exclusive; that would go against their nature. I won’t disagree with anyone calling puns obvious or unsophisticated, but I’m still going to take joy in the sheer delight of deeply silly jokes.

It’s easy to undervalue joy, especially joy taken from something as frivolous as a dad joke, but laughter is important. Finding common ground with your family, finding a way to connect with strangers, finding a way to bring more laughter into your day, isn’t something to scorn–it’s something to celebrate.

So as Father’s Day approaches, spare a few moments to think of the plight of the dad joke; so humble, so overlooked, but so key to teaching us how to draw unexpected connections, to uniting us, to letting us goof around without fear of judgment, to making us feel welcome. Call the person in your life who loves dad jokes (as we all know, there’s always one). They don’t have to be your dad, just a relative or friend or teacher who has a true love for bad jokes. Thank them for introducing you to the joy of the dad joke.

And then, once they’re properly moved by your appreciation, ask if their refrigerator is running. It’s the best tribute a dad joke lover could ask for.

(Image via Full House/ABC)

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