What’s brown and sticky?
Maybe you’ve already heard this hoary old chestnut, not even a joke so much as a bunch of words, weighed down with the cares of the world, that once had a joke vaguely waved over it. Resolving the riddle requires not just a sneaky act of linguistics, but also the subversion of an entire genre of similar worn-out jokes, making it not just a terrible joke, but also terribly clever (well, let’s not go too far). For that reason it’s still a favorite of small children, linguistics undergrads… and of course, dads everywhere.
Here’s another told to me recently. A man comes up to the widow at the funeral of his old friend and says “Mind if I say a word?” She nods. The man clears his throat and says gently “Plethora.” The wife smiles sadly and replies “Thanks—that means a lot.” Cue the groans.
Ah yes, dad jokes. We all know the kind, where a dad joke walks into a bar… and doubles up in pain due to the obvious and enthusiastic wordplay. But it’s everyone else who groans. Take the worst joke known to humanity and surely somehow, somewhere out there in the world, some dad will be telling it as if it’s the funniest thing in the world to a long-suffering audience.
Are Dad Jokes Universal?
Bad jokes have come to be strongly associated with middle-aged men with children. Though it’s mostly since 2014 that the mildly pejorative term “dad jokes” really caught the attention of the general public enough to enter dictionaries, the idea of an uncool father regaling his kids with corny jokes seems to be widely relatable to lots of people. And when they’re so bad they’re good, these otherwise ridiculous jokes have sometimes become perversely popular and shared by more than just the dads of the world.
The popularity of cringeworthy dad jokes brings up so many questions. There are more ways to convey humor than you can shake a stick at, many of them clever, witty, original, and undeniably funny. So why is it the most canned, corny, formulaic, brown and sticky jokes that have become so popular? Why do people associate bad jokes with dads—and is this even fair?
While all cultures make jokes and share humor in some way, it’s unclear whether or not the dad joke is really universal. There are certainly counterparts in other languages. In Japanese, oyaji (old man) gyagu (gag) are essentially dad jokes that are met with a blank stare from younger folk.
Choi Jinsook examines the increasingly popular ajae (middle aged man) jokes in Korean, such as in television comedy shows in which sorely distressed interns are forced to laugh at the bad jokes of their bosses in order to keep their jobs. A typical ajae riddle: 비가 1시간 동안 내리면? 추적 60분 (Translation: “What do you call it when it rains for an hour?” “In-depth 60 Minutes,” is the homophonic punchline that uses the title of a popular Korean TV program, which could also mean “60 minutes of drizzle.” I guess you had to be there.) Obviously, as Choi points out, you’d need an understanding of Korean pop culture and language to really get the joke. But like dad jokes in English, they don’t “require skillful delivery style and can be repeated endlessly” by anyone, thanks to their simplicity, unlike other kinds of verbal arts, puns, and wordplay.
The ways dad jokes differ from other jokes and indeed other forms of humor can be telling. (Humor researchers caution us most earnestly that if we dare to dissect why a joke is even funny, it’ll take all the humor out of it. But since dad jokes are mostly not very funny anyway, I think we can take a chance).
What Makes a Joke Funny?
On the face of it we may think of jokes as fun and games, a way to make others laugh from delight and surprise. Humor has been shown to bring people closer socially and relieve the stress of negative situations. Jokes have an undeniable power to reveal truths and create a rapport.
Then again, Freud famously argued that jokes were a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression. Successful joke telling can form a bond between the teller and the audience, but sometimes they are banded together against the butt of the joke. It turns out the social forces that drive our use of jokes, while they may improve our moods, aren’t always a laughing matter.
Topics that are usually too inappropriate to discuss in certain polite circles can be comedy gold to others: people falling and hurting themselves; people’s personal traits such as weight, height, hair color, or ethnicities; even taboo or sexual subjects. Jokes can reinforce conservative, conventional views of what’s considered normal.”The racist can safely broach a taboo subject by making a nasty remark cloaked in humor—that is, to use humor as a testing device,” notes Peter Farb. The listener can show whether they find it acceptable by laughing, or not.
At the same time jokes and black humor can be a way people can cope with horrific events, enjoyed precisely because they’re so bad and offensive. In the aftermath of the Challenger explosion in 1986, Elliott Oring describes how a tasteless joke cycle spread quickly across the country:
Why didn’t they put showers aboard the Challenger? Because they knew everyone would wash up on shore.
It’s both disconcerting and revealing, what we as an audience can find funny.
What makes a thing funny? At its core, humor seems to be all about incongruity. Comic situations set up a context where something is marked or out of place. This oddness, far different to what we were led to expect or what we blithely assume is normal, is what makes things funny. The joke par excellence has to be cleverly original, yet not too clever that no one can get it. Telling a good joke needs a delicate balance.
Successful jokes, especially when new to the listener, can increase the social status of the teller in the hierarchy of a group, allowing them control over the social interaction. If you’re a good comedian, people are going to give you more opportunities to tell jokes. The performance of joke telling actually usurps the normal turn-taking customs of conversation by reserving the right to speak and forcing listeners to play along with the format of the joke (for example in a knock-knock joke or riddle). For the time of the joke, it’s an exercise in defining a reality that is “fiercely conservative,” according to some researchers, maintaining our conventional views of the world by laughing at what’s different.
So the stakes can be high in joke-telling, especially if the teller fails to deliver. People regularly signal not only when they’re about to tell a joke, in case it’s been heard before, but offer up excuses for why the joke might fail to dissociate themselves from the joke. Failure to land a joke successfully, or failure to “get” the joke (and be accused of the dire crime of not having a sense of humor), even getting the joke too easily when the subject might be inappropriate or taboo, means you can be in danger of losing face. Who would have thought that telling a joke could be so fraught with social pitfalls?
The Joy of the Bad Joke
Humor researchers don’t always agree, but one thing seems clear. So-called “dad jokes” take what we know about joking and turn it upside down—and not just because they’re horrendously bad. Dad jokes are a kind of anti-joke, different from other ways of joking in their performance, even formulaic jokes. Like self-deprecatingly joking about a personal flaw before your bullies do, dad jokes seem to court failure, presenting themselves as deliberately bad, deliberately uncool, deliberately anti-humor. No special kind of comedic performance or timing is needed—so anyone can tell a dad joke. The jokes aren’t new, they’re the easiest jokes to understand, and no one can possibly fail at getting them. A listener is meant to groan at what is obviously a bad joke… yet if they do laugh, all the better.
Dad jokes play with incongruity largely through linguistics and wordplay, rather than subject matter. The much-maligned pun is a mainstay of the dad joke. Puns, bad or good, have long fascinated researchers for their playful ability to tell a micro mystery, with its red herring clues in plain sight. A piece of string is kicked out of a bar, disguises itself and walks back in. “Hey, weren’t you that piece of string who was in here before?” says the barman. “No, I’m a frayed knot!” Through a trick of linguistics, words cleverly disguised like other words because of the way they sound or their different semantic senses can lead us in the wrong direction of meaning resolution, before we “get it.” While puns can be clever, the language play found in dad jokes is often excruciatingly bad, obvious, and trite. And yet, in their exuberance, they work in some way.
Dad jokes may often build on the templates and expectations of other well-worn jokes in a kind of meta-humor, and then deliberately undercut them as an anti-joke for comedy value. I still remember my grade six teacher’s often repeated (by himself) masterpiece, a limerick that went:
There once was a snake called Jake
Who wanted to be as thin as a rake.
He was so fat
And because of that
He exercised and got quite thin.
As Choi shows when discussing ajae jokes, the popular culture around uncool Korean dad jokes allows for different views of masculinity, moving from a strictly authoritarian figure to someone who would playfully make jokes (even bad ones). There’s perhaps a parallel in English. No longer distant, traditional patriarchal father figures, dads can use jokes to bond and interact with their children, using simple humor that is most often appreciated by children earlier on in their development. Children begin to absorb the system of language by playing with language, through the enjoyment of jokes, puns, tongue twisters, schoolyard rhymes and the like.
Not only do dad jokes overlap with the kinds of jokes and language games children learn to enjoy, they actively encourage and develop a linguistic curiosity and understanding in children who are becoming gradually more aware of the world around them. But as much as small children undeniably enjoy their fathers’ jokes, they’re no more delighted than the tellers of the jokes themselves. The enjoyment perhaps is more in the telling of it, even when accompanied by a chorus of unappreciative (and inevitable) groans. For a time, the parental jokester has the floor and the kids are listening.
So is it really only dads that tell dad jokes? Studies claim that men seem to prefer formulaic joking as a way to differentiate themselves while women tend to share funny stories cooperatively with each other, a form of humor that is based on intimacy and solidarity. Formulaic jokes draw on social knowledge that a wider audience can appreciate while humor based on intimate knowledge is understood only by those that have a relationship with each other.
The accusation often levied in the past, notably from linguist Robin Lakoff, that women “have no sense of humor” and can’t tell jokes or get them, often ignores the fact that humor studies may be biased towards overtly male forms of humor, such as aggressive jokes that are often hostile or sexual in content, while a more cooperative kind of humor or gentler wordplay is not always considered valid. What Dawn T. Robinson and Lynn Smith-Lovin found in their study of humor and group dynamics was that men did joke a lot more in general, because successful joking (and interruption) increases social status and differentiation. Women actually joked much more, in general, when no men were present to interrupt them.
So it seems jokes are really for anyone with an interest in linguistic silliness. If you think otherwise, well, perhaps your mom can interest you in a punchline.