I've had a little Twitter success lately. Not with my main account, which has been slowly gathering a halfway decent number of followers for over 5 years. That account is lucky to pick up 10 new followers a month, but I've landed over 1000 followers in less than a month for @CNNyourmom, an account which is nothing but Mad Libs-style mother jokes, using real headlines as a template. For example:
Thousands Flee Your Mom
Your Mom Threatens Sea Levels
Your Mom Available To Everyone For $1500
Your Mom Has Been Officially Canceled
Pau Gasol Confirms It Is ‘Unlikely’ He Returns To Your Mom This Season
Federal Judge Rules Your Mom Is Unconstitutional
Your Mom Covers About 80% Of Greenland—And She's Melting
You get the idea. I'm thrilled at the account's success (which I started after Teju Cole pointed out that some similar tweets in my main account changed how he read headlines) but I'm not sure I understand why it's so appealing. What is it about mother jokes? Why are they an eternal well of humor? Is everyone a 12-year-old on the inside?
My best guess is that mother jokes hit the sweet spot Peter McGraw and Joel Warner talk about in The Humor Code, which suggests the Benign Violation Theory as an explanation for why stuff is funny. Talking trash about someone's mother is certainly a violation, but it's so transparently stupid and silly that it's hard to take actual offense, making it benign. I'd say mom jokes are the verbal equivalent of a noogie, a whoopie cushion, or a tap on someone's shoulder to make them look. They're harmless verbal pranks that demonstrate friendship. I'd never insult the mother of someone I genuinely dislike, but I constantly insult the mothers of my friends.
It's tempting to say mother jokes are one of many examples of men being boys, but there are a hell of a lot of women who appreciate these jokes as well. I'd say half or more of my @CNNyourmom followers are women, and women seem as likely (or more likely) to praise or retweet the account. Thanks to crappy popular culture, women have a reputation as prudish guardians of the serious, but I've found real women can be just as crude and silly as dudes. After all, mothers are the universal source of life, so why shouldn't they be a universal source for humor?
To get back to that 12-year-old in us all, I think mother jokes are, to use a pretentious phrase, an act of resistance. They're resisting the serious adult world which wants us to buy a house, have kids, get married twice, keep an eye on the 404k, and only enjoy serious entertainment like Mad Men. Like playing pinball or reading a comic book, telling a mother joke carves out a small space for being a kid.
For a brilliant expansion of the mother joke, you should check out a sketch by Key and Peele I wrote about here. I'm so jealous of that sketch I could eat paint: it's wonderful. I hope you--and your remorseless, lecherous, treacherous, kindless villain of a mom--enjoy it.