“Why did the plane crash into the mountain?”
“Because the pilot was a loaf of bread.“
Do you get it?
It’s a joke that has haunted me ever since I first heard it as a teenager. It was relayed to me by my older brother, who had heard it from his friend’s dad. To this day, we still laughingly recount the scenario under which he first heard the joke: My brother stands politely with his friend and his friend’s father, nodding along as the “joke” is told, but when it reaches the punchline, my brother is silent, not knowing to react until his friend, noticing his confusion, helpfully instructs him — “You’re supposed to laugh now.”
It was our introduction to a genre of humour affectionately known as the dad joke.
The first recorded use of the term can be found in a 1987 Gettysburg Times column by Jim Kalbaugh. On Father’s Day of that year, Kalbaugh not only introduced “dad joke” to the public, but he also made an impassioned plea to keep the genre alive: “As we approach Father’s Day, I would like to propose that ‘Dad’ Jokes not be banned. They should be revered, preserved.”
More than 30 years later, as we approach Father’s Day 2019, it’s safe to say that Kalbaugh got exactly what he wished for — with a large assist from social media. To understand this, we’ll have to go back even further to a decade before Kalbaugh’s column when another important term was coined.
The word “meme” was first used by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as a means of describing a “unit of cultural transmission.” Dawkins was trying to suggest that ideas can replicate, evolve and enter popular culture in a way similar to the spread of genes.
Nowadays, a meme is commonly seen as a comedic comment on an image, usually referencing a relatable theme, moment from popular culture or a common life experience. Unlike more traditional forms of comedy that involve a lengthy buildup to a quick payoff, a meme matches the brevity of current social convention by slashing down comedy to the space of a single line, maybe two. It derives its comedy from the unspoken surprise that your own specific, quirky habits, thoughts and experiences are shared by millions around the world. The context of the comedic meme is not only already provided by its near universality, it’s quite often the punchline as well.
“This online genre of humour is instant gratification,” says Edmonton comedian Paul Seven. “You can sit by yourself and run through a whole list of memes without having them explained to you, or any cultural challenges. It’s instantly connected to an idea.“
Because they rely on nearly universal context, the comedic meme provides a punchy form of humour without much risk of offending its audience. “When you have an opinion, even if its authentic, or the truth, your truth, you’re still going to offend somebody,” explains Seven.
At the confluence of neutral yet punchy is where the beauty of dad jokes stand. “What’s brown and sounds like a bell? Dung dung,” jokes Seven. It was one of his father’s most recounted jokes he explains, with a small chuckle. “It’s so stupid. There is no social commentary in there, there is no agenda, no political material, its neutral.”
Dad jokes often derive their comedy from puns, which Seven calls a lost art. “It’s a genre most kids grow up with and can relate to, no matter where they are from. It requires no cultural know-how, no knowledge of social trends or world updates.”
Unlike stage comedians who constantly need to update themselves to stay relevant, dad jokes never go out of style — mostly because they’re so resistant to even trying to stay in style. “Dad jokes take the audience away from everything awful to something so neutral and inoffensive, without even trying,” says Seven. You don’t have to think and no one gets hurt.”
Which makes them all the more desirable in today’s world. “I think we’re tired of turning on CNN and watching the absolute nightmare that is the reality around the world,” says Seven. “And then you go on Twitter and you read about dad puns.”
Perhaps it’s because of this that fathers have become the new social-media sensations. James Breakwell, who goes by the Twitter handle @ExplodingUnicorn, has 1.12-million followers. His tweets share his daily struggles raising four girls, summarized in four-lines of dialogue that are almost all prime examples of dad jokes. Elsewhere, t he reddit page r/dadjokes, a forum where users share “jokes that make you laugh and cringe in equal measure,” has 1.7-million subscribers.
The 2017 online video series “Dad Jokes” pits comedians and celebrities against each other in dad joke competitions, in which competitors lose if they laugh at their opponent’s jokes. It has more than a million followers on Facebook. Meanwhile, #dadjoke remains one of the most popular hashtags used on Twitter. Celebrities have also capitalized on the trend, which in turn is immediately transformed into more memes.
In an age of online nastiness and shorter attention-spans, dad jokes provide an innocent relief from the viciousness of a lot of other humour that prevails on social media — and it does so in all of two to five seconds.
“You look at old-school comedy, somebody is the victim of some joke somewhere,” says Seven. “In my mind, comedy should heal, make you feel good about yourself.” A quick laugh (often accompanied by a slight cringe), this is exactly what a good dad joke provides.
It can also lead to the occasional honour. Did you hear about the dad who invented knock-knock jokes? He won the no-bell prize. I still don’t know what a loaf of bread has to do with anything though.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019