Why are dad jokes funny?

Notice how I didn’t ask if they were funny. That’s not up for debate. Sure, they may not be funny to everyone, but they are certainly funny to someone, else we dads wouldn’t keep telling them.

I’ve been a father for over two and a half years (so, I’m just getting started) and I’ve been mulling over this question the entire time – why are dad jokes funny. Pretty quickly, I realized that I was looking in the wrong places for an answer to that question.

I surveyed 100 people – à la Family Feud – and the most popular response was: “they’re not”. But I can’t accept that answer because it’s not accurate. Dad jokes are funny. But why?

Well, only after having our second child have I finally started to peel back the curtain on the truth. It’s still not fully formed, but I’m getting closer. The problem was that I was asking others. What I failed to realize was that the answer lies within.

It’s a strange phenomenon, the dad joke. For instance, this past Christmas, I was tasked with reading the story of Jesus’ birth at one of our Christmas celebrations with friends. You don’t have to be of the Christian faith to understand what happened next – all faiths are welcome to enjoy this hilarity. So as I’m reading Luke chapter 2, I hit verse 12, which goes like this:

“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Without skipping a beat, the following words came out of my mouth in the most eloquent manner in which I’ve ever spoken:

“I’ve always heard that Jesus never sinned, but right here in the Bible is says he was lying in a manger.”

Get it? Lying? Like telling a lie, not like lying down on the floor. Yeah, you got it.

As soon as the last word left my mouth, the corners of my lips curled slightly upward and I waited patiently before glancing quickly around to room to see what sort of visceral reaction I had induced in the people around me. Sure enough, the room was split. The women, well, they adopted a strangely sympathetic, yet sick-to-their-stomach sort of look. I’m not sure why they felt bad, but they did. The dads in the room, on the other hand, reacted one of two ways. Either their eyes lit up with a joy barely fathomable in this world and a grin instantly took over their entire face, or they dipped their heads and tried their hardest to stifle a smile. Interestingly enough, the grinners had been dads a long time, while the stiflers were newer fathers. Do with that what you will.

Either way, the inner thoughts of each of those dads was the same – a perfect mixture of “that was awful” (20%), “I can’t believe you said that aloud” (10%), “I’m oddly proud of you” (25%), and “I wish I would have thought of that” (45%).

Personally, when I lay down a sick dad joke, I typically try to play it cool. By playing it cool, I mean I acknowledge that is was in fact a dad joke, smirk a little at my own silliness, then privately take great levels of joy and satisfaction that I made other people cringe, even if just a little.

And that is the answer – dad jokes are funny because they make the teller of the joke laugh, either internally or externally. But here’s the key point: it’s not the joke itself that is funny. Rather, it’s the reactions of others – usually disgust – that bring about the real joy. Being a dad isn’t as easy as it might seem. Dads struggle with sleep deprivation. Dads know they have to assume the role of “person whose arms are always way too full of bags/suitcases/coats at the airport/beach/sporting event”, and we know how dumb we look. Dads understand that between mom and dad, the kids prefer mom. Dads know that everyone else in the family uses nearly 15% of their daily energy just praying that we won’t embarrass them somehow. Dads understand these things.

So when we dads make dad jokes, we’re not telling it for you. Oftentimes we don’t even realize we’re speaking words aloud until it’s far too late. Instead, we’re telling the joke for ourselves. For the good of dads everywhere, I implore to you keep wrinkling your nose and sighing in shameful disgust when you hear a dad joke. It really means the world to us.