It's a well known, and oft documented fact that all dads are aspiring comedians. You can bet that somewhere in suburbia there's a dad, mowing a lawn, who is fairly certain that if the world heard but half of the zingers and observations he unleashes on his family, he'll be bigger than that Jimmy Kimmel guy. You can also bet that his family disagrees with that observation, especially his kids.
My family is a peculiar cycle of funny and unfunny. My dad is an intelligent, accomplished, caring, and otherwise excellent father, but he's a miserable comic. His jokes have nearly rendered me blind from how far back my eyes roll, and my cheeks sear in white-hot embarrassment when he tires out his "bits" on perfectly decent people who are trying to live their lives without having to decipher whether my dad is making a joke or having a mental collapse of some sort. In complete contrast, my grandfather, who turned 95 last month,is a well-respected columnist with an incredible sense of humor. Grandpa introduced me to Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and other classics of comedy when i was a kid, and his sense of humor was the pinnacle of hilarity during my childhood, and continues to crack me up to this day. He only stopped doing "Stroke Jokes" at age 90, after one of his goofball friends suffered a stroke and nobody believed it was real. A nonagenarian "Boy who called 'Stroke'" cautionary tale, was the only way to get grandpa to stop goofing around with that stuff.
But you know who doesn't find my grandpa funny at all? Who feels shame and terror every time my grandpa says or does something cheeky, or silly?
My dad thinks his dad is just as unfunny as he is.
So here's the question this Father's Day: Is my dad actually unfunny, or is he unfunny to me because he's my dad?
We all know that comedy ABOUT being a dad can be pretty great. Louis CK's bits about resentful parenting are personal favorites, as are Jim Gaffigan's, and Bill Cosby's "Fatherhood" stands as one of the great pieces of 20th century comedy, so it's important that we separate the subject of being a dad, in comedy, from the painful reality of "Dad Humor." Much like the series Sh*t My Dad Says, Dad Humor rarely happens in front of an audience of more than five, it's often dependent on victimizing a captive audience, and seems to thrive on audience groans over laughter.
The talented Emily McCombs did a piece for Asylum a few years back that collected some of the "best" dad groaners.
Here are some classics from her compilation and from her readers:
"If Buttheads Could Fly This Place Would Be an Airport"
Dad: "Would you like some food?" Me: "I'm good." Dad: "I know you're good, but would you like some food?"
Person calling: "Is Greg around?" Dad: "No, Greg's a square."
Kid: "I'm tired/hungry" Dad: "I'm Dad, nice to meet you!"
"Bye! Nice seeing me."
Kid: "Are we there yet?" Dad: "Yes, get out."
You get the point. Lame, weak, terrible jokes. Still, I found myself chuckling while reading them and wondered if some sort of oedipal bias was blinding me (HA!) as to how potentially funny my dad really is. So I did what any intellectually curious guy would do, I called Professor Peter McGraw at the Humor Research Lab at CU Boulder. He explained to me that the intent of dads joking with kids is very different than that of a comic. The aim is not necessarily laughter, but rather the shame I've been feeling all along.
"Dad humor leans heavily on wordplay, intentional misunderstanding and general goofiness in order to elicit eye rolls and groans. Dads seem to get a kick out of making their kids groan. In a way, it's pretty ingenious that dads find a way to make silly jokes about mundane, daily life."
He went on to point out that Dad Humor is lame, probably because raising a kid is pretty lame and that even my dad had to have some degree of "cool" at some point in order to "get" my mom. So basically, Professor McGraw blames me and my brother for my dad's lame jokes.
He did offer a critique of my dad's workshopping methods, however.
"Unfortunately, you often get the same joke over and over again."
"We're off like a turd of hurdles! Oops! I mean herd of turtles." How many times do you need to hear that one before you want to slam your head in the car door?"
Familiarity breeds contempt, i suppose.
So there it is. The scientific consensus from a quick conversation that I had with someone who seemed like they wanted to desperately to get off the phone, is that Dad humor is so terrible, so awful, so tedious, because raising a kid makes you lame. So my Dad resides in his tormented prison of unfunny hell because of my brother and I. Mostly because of my brother, i'm sure. He's the worst. Ask my Mom.
Regardless, I feel I owe an apology to my dad.
Dad, I'm sorry raising me was so mind numbing, so tedious and mundane, that it transformed you into this terrible jokester we see today. I wish I had been as cool as you obviously were, so you could have retained an incredible sense of humor like Grandpa or a modicum of the "coolness" you once possessed in order to "get" (Technical Term) Mom.
Happy Father's Day, dad and grandpa!
I asked a bunch of comics to chime in on being or having a funny dad. Check out their great answers in the slideshow below.
You can catch my (95 years young!) grandfather's daily observations and factoids at: Excelsior: Sin Maquillaje (use Google Translate).
Read more about Pete McGraw's humor research at: The Humor Code