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The thing about a good “dad joke” is that it gives the father a false sense of how funny he is. Hear your 4-year-old cackle uncontrollably the first time you throw out an otherwise average pun, and it’s easy ⏤ basking in your own comedic genius ⏤ to think you should be opening for Dave Chapelle. As a dad of three (ages 4-, 6- and 13-years-old), I’ve had the unique privilege, however, of hearing how the same “dad joke” is received by audiences at different stages of their lives. Let’s just say that, unlike a good wine, it doesn’t get funnier with age. I’ve also learned why it’s so hard for the world’s comedic fathers to lay off the “dad jokes,” even though we really need to stop. No, seriously, we do. But let me explain why we can’t.
I uttered my first ‘dad joke’ while driving my kids home from school. My 4-year-old son, being the prospective new reader that he was, would see words along the road, sound them out, and ask questions. Like all parents, I assumed this made him a boy genius. On this particular day, he was stuck on the spelling of the pharmacy ‘Walgreens.’ Having seen the bright red word numerous times, he knew how to spell it but asked, “Dad, why do they call it Walgreens?” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Because they painted all the other walls blue.” Ba-dum ching!
Corny, I know. But his laughter has been ringing in my ears ever since. My son thought about it, slapped his leg, and laughed out loud. I got a “LOL” and a knee slap on my first ‘dad joke.’ And that was just the beginning. My 6-year-old daughter playfully punched her younger brother and repeated the last part of the joke while laughing hysterically. Even better, the laughter kept coming as the two of them retold the punchline and reveled in how funny their dad was. I had killed.
Sitting up front in the passenger seat, however, my 13-year old daughter wasn’t the least bit amused by my wit. Her dramatic eye roll left little doubt. Her eyes disappeared somewhere in the back of her head and reappeared as she took a deep, well-intentioned sigh. I suddenly had an idea of how Dane Cook must feel on stage. Within fifteen seconds of telling my first ever ‘dad joke,’ I had experienced both the highs and lows of the comedy pendulum and learned firsthand how fathers get sucked into the ‘Dad Joke Black Hole’ but cannot get out.
At a young age, our children are enthused and excited to hear whatever words of wisdom you bestow upon them. When a zinger, whether corny or genuinely hilarious, slips in ⏤ they love it. By the time they reach the pre-teen and teenage years, however, they’ve no doubt heard your best material and are over the one-liners. As they say in comedy: The joke doesn’t change, the audience does. And your older kids have spent a lot of years sitting in that crowd.
My little ones crack up every time I tell them why the bike couldn’t stand up ⏤ because it was two tired, of course. My oldest daughter knows it’s funny but won’t grant me the privilege of seeing her smile at something so trivial. And that’s both the beauty and the sadness of the ‘dad joke’ ⏤ and really, of fatherhood. Seeing your children grow up, knowing that a time will come when their innocence is gone when they’ll move from childhood to the teenage years. Adulthood is around the corner. What was once shared laughter at something silly will ultimately become aloof silence from a too cool teenager.
But, of course, you keep the ‘dad jokes’ coming, if only to try to relive those more innocent times. You love your children the same way you did when they were babies, and you yearn for that laughter you got when they were small, and naive, and easily surprised by average wordplay. And while those moments might be fading, the ‘dad jokes’ can last forever. Just as long as you can handle the eye rolls.
Yusuf Young is a father of two girls and a boy. He coaches high-school basketball and teaches World History in the great city of New Orleans, Louisiana.