A Guy Walks Into a Bar and Says “Ouch!”

Why do dads tell dad jokes when they're so painful to hear?

Posted Mar 21, 2019

Recently, I received an invitation to do an interview on National Public Radio’s LA Affiliate about dad jokes. You can listen to that interview by clicking here.

I’ve been interested for quite some time in why we laugh at the things we do. My friend Jim C. used to make fun of me by putting on his dorky scientist’s voice and mimicking my interest, saying, “Why is this funny to you?”

There are three main theories of humor, two of which help to explain Dad jokes. In order to discuss them, here’s a joke for you:

A guy goes to his doctor. The doctor asks him what’s wrong. The man says, “I’ve broken my arm in a couple of places.” The doctor says, “I’d suggest not going to those places.”

[Groan]

I still find this joke funny, even though I recognize that it relies on the very simplest form of humor – the pun. The incongruity-resolution theory [1, 2, 3] says that jokes like this make us laugh in part because they set up an expectation, and then throw a puzzle into the narrative, which the listener has to solve. The solving of the puzzle leads to a momentary delight, as the listener recognizes the trickery and proves capable of seeing through it. In short, there’s an ego trip involved. The groan afterward further allows the listener to not only demonstrate the ability to see through the incongruity but also to express that s/he is too good to find it funny.

English speaking listeners hear the phrase “couple of places,” and automatically hear it as a reference to different locations on the man’s arm. The doctor’s reply, at first, doesn’t make sense. But quickly, we realize that the doctor has turned the phrase on its head, and given us an alternate meaning. To top it off, the alternate meaning is absurd and unhelpful, which adds a double layer to the joke, since our expectations of doctors is that they are there to help us with our physical problems.

To discuss the second theory, please watch (or re-watch) the following video from Saturday Night Live, highlighting the foolishness of Will Farrell in the “More Cowbell” skit. Think through what makes you laugh, and why.

Everything about this skit is funny to me. The clothing they are wearing, the deference they all pay to “Bruce Dickinson,” who is nobody to us. The very idea that a cowbell would be the fulcrum of a rock song, and then, of course, Will Farrell’s willingness to look absolutely ridiculous. The way he moves his body around, his enthusiasm with his “instrument,” and the gradual rise of his shirt above his waist, revealing his belly. We also get to enjoy watching Jimmy Fallon lose his ability to stay in the scene. When he begins laughing while delivering his lines, he secretly gives us all permission to laugh. The message seems to be - this skit is so funny, even a seasoned comedy artist can’t hold it in.

But what is the reason this is funny? According to psychologists who study humor, it could be that we feel superior to these characters. The superiority theory [4, 5, 6] says that, deep down, we are all looking for opportunities to feel superior to other people. The popularity of prank shows is based almost entirely on the premise that the people who are falling down, impaling their nuts on fence posts, and getting scared by innocuous events, are imperfect. In the skit, and on shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” we are laughing AT the people we are watching.

So now, let’s discuss the dad joke. In my opinion, the dad joke is a way for a father to connect with his children through humor. The jokes are playful. They are safe. Dad jokes don’t cross any lines of appropriateness. They are about innocent topics that have no potential for awkwardness. These jokes have a closeness and a warmth to them. A dad joke is an effort on your dad’s part to connect with you. Your dad is taking the time to give you a little laughter, and share an experience with you. As a side effect, your dad is letting you laugh at him for being lame. He is letting you feel superior to him, and groan away his attempts to be funny. In short, the dad joke is a way for your dad to tell you, “You are important to me, and I like you.”

Did your father tell you dad jokes? What are your favorite dad jokes? Do these jokes make you feel closer to him when you think about them?

References

[1] Hobbes, T., & Tuck, R. (1996). Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Rappoport, L. (2005). Punchlines: The case for racial, ethnic and gender humor. Westport: Praeger.

[3] Tragesser, S. L. and Lippmann, L. G. (2010). Teaching: For superiority or solidarity. The Journal of General Psychology, 132, 255-266.

[4] Boyd, B. (2004). Laughter and Literature: A play theory of humor. Philosophy and Literature, 28, 1-22.

[5] Cooley, J.M. (1992). Mediation and joke design: Resolving the incongruities. Journal of Dispute Resolution, 2, 1-54.

[6] Rich, J.D. and Weisberg, R.W. (2004). Creating All in the Family: A Case Study in Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 16, 247-259.