Why dad jokes crack us up: The surprising psychology explained

They might make you roll your eyes, but why do you secretly love these groan-worthy dad jokes? Photo credit: Despositphotos.

By Erin Dooner

Ever told your dad, “Dad, I’m hungry,” only to get the response “Hi Hungry, I’m Dad”? If so, you’ve experienced a classic groan-worthy, eye-roll-inducing, really-should-have-seen-it-coming, so-bad-it’s-good dad joke.

What makes a joke a dad joke? Why are these wisecracks both terrible and hilarious? And are dad jokes a new or time-honored phenomenon? In honor of Father’s Day, read on to learn about the surprising psychology behind dad jokes. You may even encounter some awful dad jokes along the way.

From bad jokes to dad jokes

Some dads are into vinyl and cold brew. Other dads have a penchant for grilling burgers and playing football. Still others might cherish a deep passion for Shakespeare or sitcoms. But no matter how different dads may be from one another, they all seem to share a common denominator: their inability to avoid making even the most ridiculous dad jokes.

A classic dad joke? A son asks his father to pass him his sunglasses, please. Dad’s response: “Sure, I’ll pass you your son-glasses … if you pass me my dad-glasses.” Groan.

You know a dad joke when you hear one, but what makes a joke a dad joke? According to Merriam-Webster, who added a definition for the phrase in September 2019, the term refers to “a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.”

Dad jokes are often inspired by a particular situation, like the sunglasses example above. Usually, they’re short and simple. And while we associate them with dads teasing their children, anyone can tell a dad joke.

The history of dad jokes is like a fruitcake – it’s full of dates

You might think that dad jokes are a recent phenomenon, but the first known usage of the term actually dates back to June 1987. In an article for the Gettysburg Times, editor and publisher Jim Kalbaugh urged readers to “preserve and revere,” not ban, dad jokes. According to Kalbaugh, dad jokes are “one of the great traditions of fatherhood worth preserving.”

While the official term “dad joke” doesn’t seem to have been in use until 1987, dad jokes have probably been around for a whole lot longer. Case in point: Mike Fontaine, professor of classics at Cornell University, collected thirteen dad jokes from Ancient Rome in an article published in In Medias Res in honor of Father’s Day.

And Marc Hye-Knudsen, a humor researcher and lab manager at Aarhus University, points out in The Psychologist that many different cultures recognize the dad joke. “The Japanese have a similar concept, oyaji gyagu, which can be translated to ‘old men’s gags’ or ‘middle-aged men’s gags,'” Hye-Knudsen writes. Likewise, Danish culture recognizes “onkel humor” or uncle humour and “morfar vittigheder” or grandfather jokes. It seems like dad jokes have universal appeal – to dads, at least.

Why you love to hate dad jokes

Unlike edgy, transgressive jokes, which often rely on shock value to get a reaction, most dad jokes are squeaky clean and appropriate for the whole family. They’re simple enough for even young children to understand. And even when dad jokes involve awful puns, they can also be kind of funny.

Hye-Knudsen suggests that we can think of dad jokes as a type of anti-humor, or “humor derived from violating the norms of humor production itself.” In other words, when someone tells a joke, it’s expected that the joke will be funny. But dad jokes often deliver tepid punchlines that shouldn’t really make you laugh, and yet they do. Paradoxically, dad jokes are so un-funny that they become funny again.

Don’t be too quick to roll your eyes at dad jokes

Hye-Knudsen also believes that dad jokes may also serve an educational function. “By continually telling their children jokes that are so bad that they’re embarrassing, fathers may push their children’s limits for how much embarrassment they can handle.” This helps kids build self-confidence and resilience, according to Hye-Knudsen.

The importance of laughter

Even the cringiest of dad jokes can make us laugh, which reduces tension according to therapist Marissa Moore, MA, LPC. “Laughter is a powerful tool for enhancing mental well-being,” Moore explains. “It reduces stress by lowering the levels of stress hormones and triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.”

As a counselor, Moore knows the importance of laughter first-hand. “In my experience, I’ve seen how laughter can foster social connections, improve mood and even alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression. It acts as a natural antidote to stress, bringing people together and helping them cope with difficult situations.”

There might be a dad in your life who, without even realizing it, uses humor to help defuse tension. Maybe you’re learning how to use the grill, but your smoked burgers turned out more like burned hockey pucks. Your dad, instead of scolding you, just places a comforting hand on your shoulder. “Impressive work, kiddo. You just burned 2,000 calories without setting foot in the gym.” As everyone groans in unison, all feelings of regret are completely forgotten. Dad joke to the rescue.

This Father’s Day, embrace the dad jokes

Looking for a unique way to celebrate Father’s Day? Turn the table on Dad by seeing if the rest of the family can out-pun him. A little studying ahead won’t hurt. For example, if you know you want to treat Dad to a pancake breakfast, do your homework and read up on some pancake jokes in advance.

Before you serve up a stack of flapjacks, ask Dad, “What do bus drivers put on their morning pancakes?” Answer: “Traffic jam.” See how many dad jokes the rest of the family can fit in, or whether Dad will out-joke you all.

Oh, and one last note about psychology. Do you know the difference between a psychologist and a magician?

A magician makes rabbits appear in hats, while a psychologist makes habits appear in rats. Happy Father’s Day!

Erin Dooner is the founder of Texanerin Baking, where she has been sharing easy and allergy-friendly recipes since 2011. A Texan now living in Munich, Germany, her passion lies in crafting sweet treats that cater to diverse dietary needs and lifestyles but without sacrificing taste.