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The Deeper Purpose Of Dad Jokes

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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My father once gave me a piece of advice that I will never forget. We were sitting at the back of the bus when an elderly nun clambered on board. Observing her entry, my dad leaned over to whisper in my seven-year-old ear. “Whenever you spot a nun, always make sure you check her footwear,” he said. “If she’s wearing men’s shoes then it’s actually a German spy in disguise.”

Many years on, every time I see a nun I’ll still give her shoes a quick onceover (alarmingly, a significant number do wear men’s shoes). But this “advice” was a classic example of my father. A rainy bus-ride to the shops was just another chance for him to take a sidelong look at the world with a slightly bemused grin. He delighted in the ludicrous nature of life.

This attitude manifested itself in a stubborn refusal to take anything too seriously. As a kid this often proved infuriating. I once recall asking dad, if our house was burning down, what three things would he save from the fire? “Wow, that’s a big question,” he whistled. A full minute passed in furrowed-brow concentration. “Three jars of raisins,” he eventually replied.

My father died when I was 11 and, when you lose a parent early in life, I suspect there’s a tendency to overanalyse your childhood dealings as you delve for the guidance you’d hope to glean later on. If those interactions were largely dominated by off-kilter musings and eye-rolling puns then you may initially conclude you’ve been short-changed.

Except that, increasingly, I believe my father’s behaviour impressed on me one of the most valuable lessons of all. By contemplating the world with a cheerfully raised eyebrow, my dad taught me how to focus on the fun stuff. That’s significant intel, too. Life, after all, is mercilessly short and pitted with setbacks and disappointment. But if you can train yourself to look in the right nooks and crannies, you’ll find it’s also brimming with laughter and buffoonery.

If life is a movie then you’re the director. Events will happen to you both good and bad, but how you choose to view the unfolding narrative is up to you. Do you want to shape the plot twists and turns into some overwrought drama? “Sounds exhausting,” my dad would suggest. “Why not change the camera-angle to tweak the emphasis and bounce through a feel-good comedy instead?”

For me, this is the deeper purpose of dad jokes: to puncture the gravity of life and give its hair a playful ruffle. But I also concede they’re not entirely trouble-free.

When we started The Father Hood, we noticed that the pre-fix “dad” is commonly used as a perjorative. Essentially, it’s the polite shorthand for “shit”. “Dad bod” means out-of shape. “Dad jeans” are ill-fitting jeans. “Dad dancing” is the distressing phenomenon often glimpsed at weddings of red-faced men getting overexcited when the DJ plays Come On Eileen. And “dad jokes”, of course, mean “shit jokes”. Or according to the Urban Dictionary definition: “an indescribably cheesy and/or dumb joke made by a father to his children”. (My dad’s personal favourite: “What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison? Have you ever tried to wash your hands in a buffalo…)

At TFH we feel the tired image of the dad as a couch-potato or buffoon isn’t just unhelpful, it’s inaccurate. After all, when it comes to hands-on involvement in the lives of his kids, the contemporary father is closer to Bandit than Homer Simpson. Viewed from that angle, one of my colleagues questioned whether dad jokes might not be so innocuous. “What can seem like light-hearted fun actually erodes the seriousness and stability of the role of dad,” he suggested.

My colleague’s reflection came on the back of an interview that he’d done with Madonna King, the author of Fathers and Daughters in which she interviewed over 500 girls and many dads on the father/daughter relationship. King pointed out that many teenage girls view their dads as embarrassing and that dad jokes play a key role in that. Dads, she suggested, often make the mistake of failing to move on from the silliness and slapstick that works so effectively when their kids are young. Buoyed by false confidence from those early years, dads continue in the same vein to become increasingly mortifying for their daughters at a potential cost to the parental bond.

And I can appreciate the logic in this. I can imagine that as your kids grow up, as a dad you could become nostalgic for that effortless intimacy you had when they were younger. In that way, dad jokes could become a misguided attempt to bridge that gap – a forlorn attempt to recapture that phase of cuddles and unblinking adoration.

Yet it’s also notable that dad jokes are more popular than ever. The Reddit page r/dadjokes, for example, has 3.2 million subscribers. The Facebook video series Dad Jokes, in which comedians go face to face trying to make each other laugh at woeful puns, boasts 1.1 million. It’s been argued this resurgence is a reaction to the sheer nastiness of modern online discourse. That the endearingly crap nature of dad jokes is a hell of a lot more palatable than most forms of humour that are more offensive, sarcastic or nihilistic.

But the context of this popularity is also significant. Writing in the middle of lockdown, the world isn’t a particularly jolly place. Amid the curfews and job losses, anything that provides a skerrick of light relief is appreciated (even laboured attempts at dire wordplay). Right now, dad jokes feel like the linguistic distillation of the Royal Marines’ motto: “cheerfulness in the face of adversity”.

That, at least, is how I remember my father’s humour. Even as he lay in hospital stricken with lung cancer, the wisecracks prevailed as he sought to buoy a small child’s spirits.

I think about Roger Benedictus a lot since I became a dad myself. Occasionally, when I’m taking my sons to get ice-cream, I’ll pick my dad’s favourite flavour as a private tribute to him. And if he could see me licking that rum-and-raisin cone, I know exactly what he’d say. “Careful Luke,” he’d warn in his sternest tone. “Don’t get pulled under by a strong currant”.