Father’s Day and Dad Jokes:

Fresno Bee, June 18, 2023

Let’s love our fathers, even as we hug their dad bods and laugh at their dumb jokes

When I first heard the phrase “dad joke” I was confused. My father is funny. But he rarely tells jokes. I soon learned that a dad joke is actually just a bad joke. And it doesn’t have to be told by a dad. T

he phrase “dad joke” emerged about a decade ago. Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary in 2019. They define it as an “endearingly corny or unfunny” joke. A dad joke is a corny quip rather than a long story with a punch line.

Here’s an example. “Why do cows wear bells?… Because their horns don’t work.” These cheesy gags typically involve puns and word play. Like: “It takes guts to be an organ donor.” The response is often a polite forced laugh or even a groan.

Some dads may believe these quips are hilarious. But other dads tell them with a sense of irony. For the ironic dad, a cornball joke is like an ugly Christmas sweater: the lamer, the better.

Growing up, I associated bad jokes with my Uncle Bernie, who was a walking encyclopedia of one-liners. We used to call them Bernie jokes. Those jokes were not endearing. Frankly, they were annoying. Bernie was not ironic or subtle. And his corny jokes often became irritating. It’s annoying to have to fake a laugh every time a jokester corners you at a family reunion.

Of course, we loved Bernie despite his wisecracks. Love and humor are subjective. If a stranger on a plane shares a dad joke (“Wearing a watch on a plane really makes time fly”), you may wish you had driven. But if a beloved elder shares the same stale joke with an ironic wink, you may be charmed.

It’s not the joke that matters as much as the person telling it and our relationship with the joker. Dad jokes are endearing because we love our fathers despite their dorkiness.

But isn’t there something sad about what this says about our image of fatherhood? These days, the stereotypical dad is a nerd with a flabby “dad bod” and a lame sense of humor. That image is a bit insulting. It’s not inevitable that fathers are soft around the middle and full of dumb jokes. Of course, we love our fathers despite their goofiness and pot bellies. But can’t we imagine a better ideal?

Which brings me back to my own father and his subtle sense of humor. He is a sincere and caring man. But he also has a playful side. Unlike Uncle Bernie, he doesn’t force himself on you or interrupt the conversation with dumb one-liners. Instead, he’s a careful and responsive listener. His light-hearted comments are in tune with the social flow. Instead of trying to take over by telling a joke, he plays along.

A good sense of humor depends upon empathy and responsiveness. The wittiest people have a knack for making appropriate comments. They say the right thing at the right time, and in the right way. They are good at “reading the room.” They do not insist on being the center of attention, like a clown or buffoon. Nor are they boorish and boring, unable to enjoy the playful fun of human interaction.

With this in mind, we might imagine how important a good sense of humor is in the art of fathering. The best fathers listen with empathy. They are wise. But they don’t use their wisdom to dominate their children. The best fathers are playful without being clownish, and sincere without being boring.

They are witty without insisting, and kind without condescending. They love their children and want them to thrive. They are strong and reliable. But they can also be soft, when they need to be. And in a world that is often serious and overwhelming, they have a knack for lightening things up.

As we celebrate Father’s Day it helps to clarify the ideal. No actual father lives up to the paradigm. No real father embodies the ideal of good humor, kindness, strength, and wisdom. But we can try. And when our fathers fail to be perfect we can forgive them for their faults, even as we hug their dad bods and laugh at their dumb jokes.

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