Plenty of men go most of their lives with relatively decent, sometimes even good senses of humor. But fatherhood transforms men in a lot of ways, and this includes their growing affection for jokes that are capable of generating groans from far across the playground. That’s right: We’re talking about dad jokes. But what is it about having children that turns otherwise funny guys into corny pun-pushers?
“One answer might be that dad jokes are just bad jokes, and that dads just have a bad sense of humor, but I think that’s wrong,” says Marc Hye-Knudsen, a humor researcher and lab manager at Aarhus University’s Cognition and Behavior Lab, who studies dad jokes. Instead, he suspects dad jokes function almost as a verbal form of rough-and-tumble play. But rather than teaching kids how to regulate their aggression, dad jokes teach children a valuable lesson: how to deal with embarrassment.
To understand how children could developmentally benefit from the mortification of having a parent who regularly busts out “Hi hungry, I’m dad!”, it’s crucial to understand what makes these jokes arguably funny. And with hundreds of thousands books dedicated to this style of humor and countless lists on the internet, “clearly people must find them funny in some sense,” Hye-Knudsen says.
The punchline of a dad joke is the lack of a punchline, along with the discomfort that ensues from it.
In the past, psychologists have distilled humor into four types: self-enhancing (jokes to make yourself look good), affiliative (jokes to strengthen relationships), aggressive (jokes to cut people down), and self-defeating (jokes to cut yourself down). But within this categorization, there are many various subtypes, including cringe humor or anti-humor, under which dad jokes fall.
The common denominator between all types of humor is some sort of incongruity — often a violation of some sort of social norm. Dad jokes are clean and appropriate for kids, but they also rely on corny wordplay. And telling someone a joke that is too cheesy to say out loud, “is itself a violation of the norms of joke-telling, and that violation can in turn make a dad joke funny,” Hye-Knudsen explains. “A dad joke can be so stupid, so lame, so unfunny that that paradoxically makes it funny.”
In other words, the punchline of a dad joke is the lack of a punchline, along with the discomfort that ensues from it. Kids react similarly to teasing, although dad jokes seem to take less of a toll on their vulnerable psyches because the kids themselves aren’t the butt of the joke — their goofy dads are. By continuing to tell the cheesiest jokes possible in spite of the reaction, “dads show their kids not to take themselves so seriously,” Hye-Knudsen explains.
He speculates that puns in particular likely have the added benefit of teaching children about “norms and ambiguities” in language. But aside from puns, dad jokes have one key ingredient. “The dad joke requires a dad who can laugh at himself,” he says. “They show that you don’t die of embarrassment, that it’s fine to be lame.”
At the same time, if you get upset when a bit bombs, kids learn the opposite and can grow up to misinterpret a lack of validation as a threat. Like with many aspects of parenthood, “it’s all about setting an example.” Well-intentioned, terrible jokes are no exception.
So go ahead and keep making your dad jokes. Your kids don’t have to love them to benefit from them. In fact, it’s probably best that they groan. And worst case scenario, they wind up a little embarrassed by how dorky their pops is. When that happens, there’s only one thing left to say: “Hi embarrassed, I’m Dad.”