Puns get a bad rap in our culture. Someone makes a pun and some people laugh while others groan and tell the teller of the pun to shut up.
Since people hate puns so much, it's easy to see why we call them "lonely forever-single guy jokes".
NO! We call them "dad jokes".
Why do we associate this particular brand of humour with men who have (presumably) won the love of a woman, successfully procreated and stuck around? Does becoming a dad give you a bad sense of humour? Or do men with that sense of humour have an easier time attracting women for long term relationships? Is it correlation or causation? And if it's causation, what causes what? Is there an evolutionary explanation? Instead of Googling it, I'll offer my suggestions.
What's interesting about this question is that girls develop verbal skills earlier than boys do. Women are generally considered to be more verbal and talkative than men (whether true or not). If this is the case, shouldn't women have more word-based humour? Shouldn't we associate puns and groaners with moms instead of dads?
Note that I am not saying that non-dads can't make "dad jokes". (I'm not a father, but I am an uncle, so my brother-in-law tells me my jokes are "puncles".) It's just that we associate these jokes so strongly with dads.
First let's define some terms:
- Dad joke
- Genereally a bad pun - word-based joke. Example:
Child: "Dad, I'm hungry."
Dad: "Hello, Hungry. Nice to meet you."
- A male who has procreated
- A father who has stuck around and loves his kids and his kids generally see as a fun guy. (This last part is highly debatable.)
Second, some self disclosure: One part of fatherhood that I've almost always felt prepared for is the dad jokes. Those who know me well know this. Recently someone said to me "Andrew, with all your dad jokes, I have to wonder how many illegitimate children you have out there!" Exhibit A: see my There Are No Anchovies blog post.
You might suggest that "dad" rhymes with "bad". To that I'd answer "Okay, but why not just call them 'bad jokes'?" Why do we associate those jokes specifically with dads?
Now let's take a look at some potential reasons dads make dad jokes:
- Women love puns
If you've ever seen any listicles on what women like in a man all kinds of qualities come up. But one seems to be very high on the list in just about any survey: a sense of humour. (It's often said that men also want a woman with a sense of humour, but women are looking for a man that can make them laugh, and men like a woman that they can make laugh.)
Based on my personal, non-scientific observations women tend to read more fiction. They talk and text on the phone more. They appreciate - nay - are moved by poetry. They probably have a larger vocabulary. They're more word-oriented than men are. It makes sense that word-based humour would appeal to women.
So a man who can come up with puns on the spot would be hot stuff in a woman's eyes. She should marry him faster than he can make another pun.
It has been my experience that women find my jokes a lot more funny than most men do. Back in college I would make a pun and guys would say "Shut up, Andrew. You're just not funny." But they had to raise their voices to be heard over the laughter of the women around. The laughter of the women encouraged me to ignore the men. (Perhaps the men were just jealous?)
- Women hate puns but assume that other women hate puns more than they do
Perhaps my above observations about women being word-oriented was just generalization? The idea that women have twenty thousand words to say in a day and that men only have five thousand has been debunked. Perhaps the laughter of women I mentioned above was from polite women? Perhaps women don't like puns all that much. Perhaps a woman may think "He thinks he's funny. He's not. In fact, his puns kinda drive me up the wall. But you can't have everything. I'm going to have to put up with something unattractive. I guess I can put up with his jokes. At least our kids will find him funny. For a while. And until then, his chances of cheating are pretty darned small. I mean, what woman would find him funny?"
If this hypothesis is true, then a lot of women are using this strategy.
It's also worth noting that this is the hypothesis most consistent with my observations and experience.
- Being a dad creates that kind of humour
Look at the different ways moms and dads deal with their kids - especially very young kids. Dads seem to have a fun streak. They fly their kids around like an airplane. They hang their kids upside down and make their kids giggle uncontrollably. They blow on their babies' stomachs making a farting noise. Laughter ensues. Generating laughter feels great. It's addicting. They want more. So, in a positive feedback loop, dads do more of this kind of thing.
But what's a dad to do when their kid becomes too big to fly around like an airplane? When peek-a-boo looses is lustre?
They go cognitive. Dad jokes are pretty safe. Less chance of injury to the self than slap-stick. (And let's face it, you're getting too old for that kind of thing.) Teasing runs the risk of hurting your child's feelings. But puns? The only victim there is the helpless, innocent English (or other) language.
(Side note: I'm told that in Quebec dad jokes are called "Joke de papa". So, this isn't just an English thing.)
At first, kids find these puns funny. But then they grow up, and instead of laughter, they cause groans. (I guess you could say that when that happens the kids are all "groan up". (Exhibit B).)
- It's an age thing
Earlier I mentioned that in college my male peers did not appreciate my particular brand of humour. But women did. A few years later, and I've noticed that many more men appreciate my humour. I am hanging out with older men than I did in college - both non-dads of dad age, and dads. (They're probably stealing my material. They're welcome to it.)
So, either I've gotten better, or older men appreciate my humour.
I don't think I've gotten better. In fact, I'm still using the same old material. To me, the best puns are the ones that occur to me on the spot. They don't necessarily get the laughs, but they make me feel the best, like I've beat a hard level in a video game. There's a sense of accomplishment.
It could be that I remind college-age people of their dads. The boys groan and the girls laugh as they're reminded of their own dads. Then eventually, men grow to appreciate their dads as much as the women did and start to find my puns funny.
Or it could just be that the 20 year old male brain hasn't developed enough to appreciate puns.
Either way, it seems that eventually men grow to appreciate dad-jokes. By that time they may have kids of their own, and they start making their own dad jokes.
- The Repeated-Exposure Effect
Coupled with the "It's and age thing" hypothesis, it's possible that many people of a certain age make "dad" jokes, but you've mostly heard them from your dad. Same with your friends; they heard them from their dads, and yours whenever they hung out at your house. But you didn't hear them from non-dads because you didn't hang out with many non-dads (of a certain age) when you a kid.
- A "wrongly persecuted group"
This is not my reason, but a friend suggested that his may be the case.
As I write this, I realize I forget what that means. All I can think of is a re-wording of the Repeated-Exposure effect. Ie: lots of people make puns, but you mostly hear them from your dad, so using the Availability Heuristic, you mis-attribute them specifically to dads.
- The Vicious Cycle Effect
It is often said that women are attracted to men that subconsciously remind them of their fathers - or at least some aspect of their fathers. It could be his hair, or lack thereof. It could be his nose, or the exact position or colour of his eyes. And it could most certainly be his sense of humour.
Long ago, some guy who was strong and fast enough to become head of his tribe also happened, by mere coincidence, to have a terrible sense of humour. ("How did cavemen say 'goodbye' to each other?" "I'll B.C.-in' ya!"* Nyuk nyuk nyuk.) Despite those kinds of jokes, he did manage to attract the cave-women in his group and procreate to his heart's content. While passing on his survival genes, he also passed on his joke-generating genes, likely on the Y-chromosome. (The joke-appreciating gene is likely on the X-chromosome allowing everyone to know how bad dad jokes are.) His sons also managed to survive and pass on the joke-generating genes.
Meanwhile his daughters were subconsciously attracted to other men who carried the joke-generating gene.
This continued for many years, each generation exacerbating the problem continuing on the vicious cycle until we arrive at our current situation: dads can't help but to tell bad jokes.
* (Exhibit C)
So there are my hypothesis as to why we associate puns and groaners with dads.