In Defence of the Dad Joke

Andrea Chu writes about not being funny, and reassures herself about it

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.




I have a really bad penchant for dad jokes. I like both delivering them and laughing at them (often occurring simultaneously). It doesn’t help that my laugh is in the genre of the “hyperventilating” kind—so that when it’s so silent you can hear a pin drop, I’m over here sounding like I’ve just heard a joke so good, I’m putting my life on the line to laugh at it. My rating for what constitutes a good dad joke gets higher the closer it gets to its “dad” quality—described as “deliberately bad, deliberately uncool, [and] deliberately anti-humour.” The definition of a dad joke isn’t clear-cut, but it usually encompasses some sort of pun or one-liner, cheesy enough to make the average person roll their eyes. I want to say that what I’m laughing about isn’t the joke itself, but I can’t be sure.

I think of dad jokes as belonging to the same realm as weird nicknames, like the one my boss calls me that uses not the first part, not the latter part, but specifically the three letters that could be considered the median of my name, and overlaps with the name of a certain American rapper and record producer. He pretended to arbitrarily impose it on me, and I pretended to hate it—one of those things where you express your closeness to someone by disregarding appropriate social conduct. Something you say that isn’t about what’s being said but what it indicates.

Yun Emily Wang finds that a pun's function lies in its homophonic nature, its ability to generate a multiplicity of meanings that give rise to community-building and self-expression. The queering of homophonic words highlights the instability of language and undermines its assumption as a rational system. In her case studies, participants reclaim puns for their own use, creating a space where only those privy to it are able to share in its joy.

Dad jokes are not always puns—indeed, they often are not. But the fact that people are able to assemble around such phrases bent and reconfigured suggests another aspect of the way that jokes are able to function, that of its “making,” of accumulating and settling and bringing about something into existence.

Where unsaid, unsayable connections coalesce around dad jokes, might be found individual utterances of jokes as a single instance, where these instances might pile up over time, stacking into a cluttered disarray. Where a friendship doesn’t occur because you said something really funny that one time but because a joke can continue to ricochet, transforming and adjusting through time. That you can repeat a joke, over and over again, exhaust it until all of its novelty wears off and it will still somehow have the ability to reconfirm a connection between those who are in the know. It becomes a tacit, agreed-upon knowledge that is only able to function through its repetition. The community that coheres around a joke is not necessarily built based on the content of the joke itself, but of the joke as a manifestation of a repetition, a repetition that relies on being actively replayed, generating adaptive spaces of belonging. Sometimes it functions like a probe, asking, how are you feeling today? Sometimes it functions as a semblance of constancy against the background of the mutability of everything. 

As something not conveyed by words, but through them.


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I previously attempted to write an essay about the anxiety surrounding the inability for words to articulate what you feel. It went through five rounds of nearly fully rewritten drafts and ultimately I gave up on it, which feels apt, given its theme. Its conclusion was one of the things I reworked the most, with its last iteration being some kind of chicken soup for the soul that used Deleuze to say that I should just care less about it. It went so far as to even employ theoretical physics to say that I shouldn’t equate other peoples’ judgements of me with my self-worth. Somehow this is an extremely accurate depiction of where I’m at.

And don’t we all logically understand how this works, that arriving at these feel-good conclusions, working them out through five different poststructuralists to say that “there is no stable self!” doesn’t hold for shit? That any amount of theory is always an incomplete attempt at unlearning what we’ve made ourselves know time and time again. 

Maybe dad jokes symbolise something for me—here I am, trying to prove to you that my sense of humour isn’t down the dumps—that its dumb, absurdist comedy encapsulates something about not having to articulate correctly, of being able to foster meaningful relationships without doing or saying everything perfectly. It does this while being the poster child for mediocrity, the odd one out, that one kid who accidentally admits that they’ve eaten the coffee beans on display at Starbucks without realising no one else does it. Almost like a barely-there exceeding of social norms, the type of uninhibited expression that gets sanded down with age.

And it’s not clarity, that which puts us at ease and halts further consideration. The clarity that might have wanted to arrive as a resolution merited through flawless eloquence, the clarity that drives distance between people as a result of leaving nothing hidden, of laying everything out bare to be scrutinised.

Dad jokes fail knowingly, with an awareness that the joke can fall flat, and it’s not a big deal. It’s not a failure that is based on complacency with doing nothing, but a failure that recognises that falling flat might be the point. It holds within itself already a deliberateness about it being bad—and so its success does not hinge on whether the joke lands or not. Dad jokes are predestined to be middling, hardly passable attempts at amusement, always intentionally failing, yet, we might be able to see how something else can emerge. A something else that, while being unclear and indistinct, asks that we might pause and laugh at our shared ordinariness. 



Andrea Chu is AAA's Assistant Editor. 

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 



Andrea CHU, 朱熙晴

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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The Stakes of Naming
Part of series

The Stakes of Naming

A series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live