By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Fifteen, you say. Here at Naked Capitalism, we pay close attention to the Wall Street Journal, and so when I saw the headline “A Groan-Up Daughter Makes a Lot of Cents Telling Dad Jokes” I sat up and paid attention:
The king of Dad jokes is a 19-year-old sophomore at Utah State University. From her social-media stage, [Neve] Pratt has aired hundreds of original and recycled jokes with a cringey delivery that has drawn more than 650,000 TikTok followers and millions of eye rolls. Punchlines are followed by awkward, fumbling silences that, to great effect, last a couple of beats too long.
“So what if I can’t spell Armageddon?” she says in one video. “It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”
Sadly, however, I have not yet advanced to TikTok; YouTube’s pale imitation, “Shorts,” is the closest I can come. But I couldn’t find examples of Pratt’s work there, nor does Pratt have a Twitter account (which should tell platform mavens something, I suppose).
What then a Dad joke? My own father’s favorite, and possibly best, joke was:
A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says “Why the long face?”
But can we discern any unifying principle? What is a Dad joke? If, as some would say, a Dad joke is an instance of humor, what is humor, and why do we have a sense of it? So I decided to look into the matter, even if investigations of the funny are notoriously unfunny, and to work from the bottom up, by first collecting some jokes, and then by
bloviating theorizing asking questions about them. My only selection criterion was that the joke had to make me smile, although in one or two cases I laughed out loud. Perhaps they will make you smile too, not such a bad thing on a Monday.
Here, then, is my corpus of Dad jokes. They are in no particular order, and in fact, when I tried to order and juxtapose them, no ordering was better than any other (although I numbered them for ready reference). Here they are:
- My friend was showing me his tool shed and pointed to a ladder. “That’s my stepladder,” he said. “I never knew my real ladder.”
- A duck walks into a pharmacy and says, “Give me some lip balm – and put it on my bill.”
- “What did the janitor say when he jumped out of the closet?” “Supplies!”
- This year’s Fibonacci convention is going to be really special. Apparently it’s as big as the last two put together.
- What has five toes and isn’t your foot? My foot.
- Where do Dads store their Dad jokes? In the Dad-a-base.
- Two sheep walk into a b-a-a-a.
- What did the fisherman say to the magician? Pick a cod, any cod.
- Can February March? No, but April May!
- What did one hat say to the other? Wait here, I’m going on ahead!
- A magician was walking down the street — then he turned into a store.
- I ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. I’ll let you know.
- I was going to tell a time-traveling joke, but you guys didn’t like it.
- “What do you call a lazy baby kangaroo?” “A pouch potato!”
- I love telling Dad jokes. Sometimes, he even laughs.
Before ascending to the theoretical plane, let me expose my sourcing. The clickbait article titles make for grim reading:
What fascinates me is that the lists themselves are copypasta; they are extremely duplicative, even within themselves; the sense of closed-in-ness reminds me of list of jokes on a wrinkled piece of paper passed surruptitiously from student to student in grade school. Although kids these days have cellphones, and all these articles were published on the Intertubes and probably assembled by bots. Even more fascinating is the picture of American life presented by the authors (or the bots). Under what circumstances does the “whole family” “chuckle?” Are there “kids” who don’t “love to laugh”? Do the kids who “love to laugh” laugh all the time? Like at night? “Actually funny” winks at the reader, but what does the wink convey? And what kind of Dad seeks a “guarantee” of laughter from his children? The entire enterprise seems forbiddingly wholesome and family-friendly and, in fact, humorless.
Let me now ascent rapidly to the 30,000-foot level. Why do we have a sense of humor? Like everything else that’s truly important — as I pointed out yesterday, sleep, consciousness, sex, death — we don’t know. From Scientific American:
[S]cientists still struggle to explain exactly what makes people laugh. Indeed, the concept of humor is itself elusive. Although everyone understands intuitively what humor is, and dictionaries may define it simply as “”the quality of being amusing,”” it is difficult to define in a way that encompasses all its aspects. It may evoke the merest smile or explosive laughter; it can be conveyed by words, images or actions and through photos, films, skits or plays; and it can take a wide range of forms, from innocent jokes to biting sarcasm and from physical gags and slapstick to a cerebral double entendre. Even so, progress has been made MR SUBLIMINAL More funding needed!.
We don’t know why animals have a sense of humor, either, but they do. From the Guardian, skipping over primates, dolphins, rats. and the ketamine-loving crayfish:
“”The playfighting and tickling we see in animals are harmless attacks which serve a very social function,”” says Peter McGraw, a psychologist at the University of Colorado. “”Some of it is bonding and some of it can be learning to fight. But what you always see is that the animal that’s being attacked is the one making these vocalizations which we interpret as laughter. I believe that through evolution, laughter developed as way of showing that something which would otherwise be wrong, is actually ok.””
The World Economic Forum [tick, tick] regards humor as an essential life skill:
Researchers have found that people who score highly in certain types of humor have better self-esteem, more positive affect, greater self-competency, more control over anxiety, and better performance in social interactions… Research has shown that humor can actually improve your physical immune system. Laughter can also improve cardiovascular health and lowers heart rates, blood pressure, and muscular tension.
And of course the truly essential arena, the workplace:
Aside from improving your health, laughter can be a productivity tool as well. A study from Northeastern University found that volunteers who watched a comedy were measurably better at solving a word association puzzle that relied on creative thinking as compared to control groups that watched horror films or quantum physics lectures. This is because laughter lights up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with attention and decision-making. Another study measured people’s performance on a brainstorming task and found that participants who were asked to come up with a New Yorker-style caption generated 20% more ideas than those who did not.
Amazingly, then, humor has a bad reputation among philosophers. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s entry on “Philosophy of Humor”:
Philosophers are concerned with what is important in life, so two things are surprising about what they have said about humor.
The first is how little they have said. From ancient times to the 20th century, the most that any notable philosopher wrote about laughter or humor was an essay, and only a few lesser-known thinkers such as Frances Hutcheson and James Beattie wrote that much….. Martian anthropologists comparing the amount of philosophical writing on humor with what has been written on, say, justice, or even on Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, might well conclude that humor could be left out of human life without much loss.
The second surprising thing is how negative most philosophers have been in their assessments of humor. From ancient Greece until the 20th century, the vast majority of philosophical comments on laughter and humor focused on scornful or mocking laughter, or on laughter that overpowers people, rather than on comedy, wit, or joking. Plato, the most influential critic of laughter, treated laughter as an emotion that overrides rational self-control…. Especially disturbing to Plato were the passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey where Mount Olympus was said to ring with the laughter of the gods. He protested that ‘if anyone represents men of worth as overpowered by laughter we must not accept it, much less if gods.’
If so, Plato would be good with the Dad joke. Assuming all Dads to be men of worth, they are not the ones overpowered by laughter; and in any case, a Dad joke typically induces groans, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also summarized three theories about why we have humor: The Superiority Theory, the Relief Theory, and the Incongruity Theory. Here is Superiority Theory of humor:
[W]e have a sketchy psychological theory articulating the view of laughter that started in Plato and the Bible and dominated Western thinking about laughter for two millennia. In the 20th century, this idea was called the Superiority Theory. Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves. A contemporary proponent of this theory is Roger Scruton, who analyses amusement as an “attentive demolition” of a person or something connected with a person. “If people dislike being laughed at,” Scruton says, “it is surely because laughter devalues its object in the subject’s eyes.”
The Relief Theory of humor:
The Relief Theory is an hydraulic explanation in which laughter does in the nervous system what a pressure-relief valve does in a steam boiler. The theory was sketched in Lord Shaftesbury’s 1709 essay “”An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor,”” the first publication in which humor is used in its modern sense of funniness. Scientists at the time knew that nerves connect the brain with the sense organs and muscles, but they thought that nerves carried “”animal spirits””—gases and liquids such as air and blood. … Shaftesbury’s explanation of laughter is that it releases animal spirits that have built up pressure inside the nerves…. Over the next two centuries, as the nervous system came to be better understood, thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud revised the biology behind the Relief Theory but kept the idea that laughter relieves pent-up nervous energy.
And the Incongruity Theory:
While the Superiority Theory says that the cause of laughter is feelings of superiority, and the Relief Theory says that it is the release of nervous energy, the Incongruity Theory says that it is the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. This approach was taken by James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and many later philosophers and psychologists. It is now the dominant theory of humor in philosophy and psychology…. The core meaning of “”incongruity”” in various versions of the Incongruity Theory, then, is that some thing or event we perceive or think about violates our standard mental patterns and normal expectations. (If we are listening to a joke for the second time, of course, there is a sense in which we expect the incongruous punch line, but it still violates our ordinary expectations.)
Let’s look at Dad jokes from each of these three angles.
Søren Kierkegaard, writing in Men’s Health opines:
If it evokes a reaction somewhere between cringing and earnest laughter, and you simultaneously want to tell the person sharing the joke to tell you more and also shut up because they’re embarrassing you in front of your friends, congratulations, you’re in the presence of a Dad joke.
Paradoxically, the Dad is both superior and inferior: Superior because he is, after all, the Dad, and he’s telling the joke; inferior because the joke is, well, a Dad joke. Similarly, “you” are superior since “you” are groaning at the badness, but inferior because you are cringing (possibly in the presence of your friends.
Relief. From Good Housekeeping:
[D]ad jokes are more of a vibe…. They’re good for a laugh, but they’re mostly going for an eye-roll. And they can be told by anyone.
There’s not much “pent-up nervous energy” released by an eye-roll, surely? Even a teen-age eyeroll?
Incongruity. From Southern Living:
Dad jokes are both beloved and despised—like corny puns, they’re funny because they’re so not funny. But what makes a dad joke different from a regular pun? The signature of a dad joke is that it’s utterly uncool. Grandma may be the queen of nonsensical sayings, but Dad is certainly the king of cheesy jokes. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, sometimes these jokes are actually funny. Add these brilliant one-liners and puns to your repertoire, and you’ll be on your way to matching dad’s pun-king status in no time.
Once again, we see paradox. The incongruity of the Dad joke is that “it’s funny because it’s not funny.” The Dad joke is, then, meta: It’s about what is funny and what is not funny. But there is a second level of incongruity: “Dad is telling a joke that’s not funny, why?” And at the third level: “That’s what’s funny.” Dry, very dry.
Since this is the stupidest timeline, a mastery of Dad jokes can only be highly adaptive, and so I hope readers will file this article under “News You Can Use.” And my favorites are #1 and #12.
 Good Housekeeping is the flagship here, top of the line, since it actually sorts Dad jokes into genres: One-Liners, Corny, “I Have a Joke About…” jokes, “To The Person Who Stole My…” jokes, and so on. There are a lot. I just hope all the jokes aren’t being churned out by ill-paid gig workers somewhere in the Third World.