Hamil with Care

Are Dad Jokes the New Alt Comedy?

It’s a weird time to be a father in our culture. The modifier “dad” has become synonymous with corny, outdated and tame. Consider the teasing that ensued when Obama wore a pair of “dad jeans” to throw out the first pitch at the MLB All-Star Game. Observe the snickering but playful characterizations of Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine as “America’s Cool Dad.” (Example: “Tim Kaine is your friend’s dad who catches you smoking weed at a sleepover and doesn’t rat you out but talks to you about brain development.”) We’re awash in images of dadhood as a benign and unfashionable—but still beloved—state. This is alarming to me as the new father of a five-month-old baby.

The most prominent signifier of dadhood in our culture is, of course, the “dad joke.” This is generally understood as an embarrassingly bad jest that relies on puns or other clever wordplay. When you say, “Dad, make me a sandwich,” and he says, “Poof, you’re a sandwich!” you’ve just been dad-joked. Or when he asks, “What is E.T. short for?” and answers himself with, “He has really small legs.” In comedy parlance a dad joke is “a groaner.” Dad jokes are clean, all-ages quips that one doesn’t so much deliver as inflict on an audience.

I’ve done dad-style wordplay one liners in my act before (example: “I subscribe to Quantum Physics Quarterly. I read it for the particles.”) and they usually split the audience between laughter and groans. I’ve noticed that the faux anger at being “had” by a corny joke never rises to outright antipathy. Even in the demanding, show-me-the-funny context of a comedy club, dad jokes are tolerated if not indulged. Just like dear ol’ Pa.

By the same token, most people would agree that dad jokes aren’t good, that they’re the lowest form of comedy. With this in mind, is it possible that dad jokes are actually subversive? That they’re the real alt comedy? Every time a new comic attempts his version of Andy Kaufman-style “anti-humor,” i.e. intentionally bombing (usually with some “meta” framework to justify it), aren’t they doing the same thing as a dad joke but without the “goofily endearing” part of the equation? Unlike anti-humor, you don’t have to understand the history and conventions of standup to appreciate a good dad joke.

As a new father who’s just starting to realize the need to make my immediate surroundings safe for an innocent young mind both physically and psychologically, I’m embracing more wholesome things. I’m replacing words like “fucking asshole” with words like “dum-dum.” I listen to a lot less ominous noise rock and a lot more sing-along indie folk and R&B. I’ve become an aficionado of the embroidered cartoon animals on baby onesies (tie between “monkey on a scooter” and “pirate octopus”). I re-bought the complete run of my favorite childhood comic, Groo the Wanderer, on eBay. I spend a substantial portion of my time hanging around with a baby scat-singing and making fart noises.

Before long, he’ll be able to understand and speak English, and then I’ll have to decide if I’m the type of guy who tells dad jokes.

In an effort to learn more about this path I’m walking toward lovable-but-embarrassing corniness, I asked some of my father-comedian colleagues how they feel about dad jokes. Some, like Dylan Avila [previously here], don’t do them.

“We groan instead of laugh because there is no substance to it,” Avila says. “I think for comedy to be great, it needs to have substance and truth. I hate puns. They are my least favorite form of comedy.”

Others, like Geoff Brousseau [previously here], embrace the role of family goofball.

“Telling jokes to my kids is me bridging a gap,” he says. “Alt comedy sets the person above comedy by being ridiculous, whereas with dad jokes the person saying the joke is the butt of the joke. Seeing my daughter roll her eyes at me warms the cockles of my cold, dead heart.”

Gabriel Rutledge [previously here] does a lot of material onstage about being a dad, but he doesn’t tell dad jokes. He’s an astute observer of the paternal condition, so I’ll let him have the final word: “Fatherhood is an amazing experience, but it’s not a cool, hip or detached one. It’s earnest. There’s no ironic way to be a good dad. Maybe there’s something freeing about telling some on-purpose corny jokes. Dad jokes are meant to get groans as a response, which is why I don’t like them. I don’t tell my kids dad jokes, but my son in particular wishes I would. He asked me once why I never use puns on stage and I said, ‘Because I don’t want to PUNish them.’ He laughed way harder than I was comfortable with.”