My twin daughters have, at the tender age of nine, mastered the exaggerated exhaustion response to dad jokes. Sagan’s is sardonic, a “nice dad joke” combined with an eye roll, while Tesla usually comes back with an elongated “daaaaaa-aaaad.” Sometimes they laugh first, if they’re not hungry or in a huge rush to get to whatever my joke is keeping them from.
It is with this in mind that I am introducing you to this book, one of the most hateful children’s books ever written.
This book is rude.
This book steals your punchlines.
This book taught my children the exaggerated eye roll.
This book will hurt your feelings, if you’re a dad at least. It never seemed to bother my wife. You may feel aggrieved when your children ask you to read it to them multiple times in a row. Slightly aggrieved at least. And then you start to lean into it, and by that point your kids have moved on to other books about tacos and crayons and a dinosaur named Penelope Rex who keeps eating her classmates (that’s a truly excellent book—everyone should read it no matter how old they are) and once in a while this one will pop up again and okay, sure I’ll read it to you.
My impression of dad jokes is that when it comes to ranking them according to humor quality, they fall somewhere between puns and punching down. They’re not going to win any awards for making people think deeply about the crisis of the moment. Most of the time they barely qualify as clever. They earn their groans is what I’m saying. But I love them because they embody the flexibility of language and ask us to jump out of the expected for just a moment.
I’ve come to think that there’s a subset of personalized license plates that qualify as dad jokes, the ones where a person came up with something funny (or stole it from somewhere) and decided it was so good they’d carry it with them everywhere. Depending on how you feel about personalized plates, they’re either a joy or they’re not expensive enough to keep people from getting them. I love them when they’re fun, roll my eyes a bit when they’re self-important, and take picture of them when I can do it safely.
One I wish I had a picture of was on the car of a person I used to work with. She had a Nissan Versa and her plate read VERC8ES, which was hilarious until she got a better job, traded in the Versa for an Altima, but kept the plate. I never understood why.
There are a lot of sports-related plates here in Iowa mostly with plays on either Hawks (for Hawkeyes) or Cyclones. When we first moved here I would translate them for my wife but sports puts her to sleep and I was usually a passenger so that ended pretty quickly.
The cars where I work are thick with Cyclone references. When my office was over next to the Molecular Biology building I would pass this one pretty regularly on my way to teach. I gave it a wide berth.
But this one I see pretty much every day I drive to campus because it’s always parked in the same prime spot in the good lot and if you know anything about university life you know that means the driver is getting there at like 5 in the morning because those spots are gold.
Why does this one get me? It’s the possibilities in the missing letters. I assume that the last word is HIM and that it’s either a religious reference or about a romantic partner. If I’m betting, though, I’m putting money on the former. But I also like to think of it as a description of musing on the state of the universe where the missing letters are M’s at the end, 4EVERHMMMMM. It’s existential!
I also consider 4EVERHAM, and given the amount of pork the state of Iowa produces, that’s not an impossible reading. Perhaps 4EVERHUM, an anti-singing stance, or 4EVERHYMN to bring it back to the religious. Just a universe of possibilities here.
When I asked my twin daughters what their favorite dad jokes were, Sagan told me is the “Dad I’m hungry,” “Hi Hungry, I’m Dad” format. She tries to catch me with it every so often, but she needs to work on her timing. She’ll get me one day, I’m sure of it.
Tesla says she doesn’t have a favorite, or that she can’t decide, but lately she’s started explaining how the joke works when she hears or reads it. So when we go to Culver’s, for example (3rd, maybe 2nd best fast food spicy chicken sandwich out there) the kids meals come in these paper bags with jokes on them and it would really be nice if they changed them up once in a while but whatever. One of the jokes is “what’s a pirate’s favorite cheese?” “Chedd-arr” and then Tesla will patiently explain that cheddar is a cheese and that pirates say Arr and I have not yet told her that the explanation messes up the joke because I’m more happy that she’s figuring out how it works for herself.
But she makes her own zingers too. Last week we went to a special screening of The Mitchells Vs the Machines as part of a film series my wife had a hand in planning. If you ever have the chance to see that movie on the big screen, do it. I mean it’s a great movie on Netflix but it was originally made to be in theaters and the experience is so much better. You really feel subjugated by the Rhombus when it’s towering over you.
So anyway, there’s a scene fairly early on when the Mitchells are on the road and they stop at a truly wretched barbecue place and Katie says they shouldn’t eat there because it has zero stars on Yelp and Dad Rick says are you gonna let the internet tell you what to eat and in the next scene everyone is barfing at a scenic overlook.
We get to the end credits and we’re seeing a lot of stuff we’ve never seen before because Netflix and most other streamers don’t really want you wasting time watching credits when you could be watching something else on their service and they really don’t want you to think about what other things you could be watching on other services or even be doing that don’t involve watching a screen at all but the credits are rolling and the menu from that restaurant pops up in the lower right corner and Tesla says “barbecue more like barf-becue” and I tell you in that moment I felt like a success as a father.
Because this is what I want as a dad, really. I want my kids to be able to have fun with the language and world they live in. Humor is a necessary part of that, both the silly kind I’ve written about here so far and the more serious, let’s look at some bad shit in the world and maybe catch ourselves mid-laugh when we see the implications of it.
Amorak Huey’s latest collection of poems is titled Dad Jokes From Late in the Patriarchy. It came out almost exactly two years ago from Sundress Publications—get your copy of it here—while the pandemic had been going on long enough that I was thinking the end was maybe in sight, though of course I had no idea what the end would look like or if it would ever come. I’m trying to remember just what it was like to open this book up and read these poems but that time is squashed together into mostly one big shitball. I can look at the date and know what must have happened around then but I can’t make it work in my memory.
What I do remember is the way I read this book slowly, because after every second or third poem I just needed to take a breath and ruminate on what I’d just read. I told Huey as much on Twitter, back when I was on there. (I deleted my account maybe 6 months ago now. Probably should have written that date down somewhere. Maybe I was worried it wouldn’t stick.)
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The collection has four sections named Setups, Reinforcements, Misdirections and Punchlines, and the poem I’m writing about today, “Dad Jokes,” is the first poem in that last section, and which first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2019 issue of Gulf Coast. It starts by breaking up the normal joke structure.
You’re rolling your eyes already.
Nice to meet you, Rolling Your Eyes
Already, I’m Dad; did you hear
what the zero said to the eight?
We’re on expected ground here which is to say we’re getting what the title promised. That first line even tells us something about the relationship between the audience and the speaker. We’re rolling our eyes after the title, presumably, and the joke is a groaner that deserves the eye roll. If you’re familiar with the genre, you can probably predict the answer to the next one.
Okay but there’s more.
Nice belt & also I’m gonna need to see your passport.
If you’re American in the living room
& European in the bathroom
what are you in the airport holding cell?
Don’t worry, I’ve got like a million of these.
The poem is following the structure set up by the sections of the book. The setup is the title and the reinforcement is the slightly misshapen opening joke. The second joke is the misdirection because it would be reasonable in another setting to expect that we’re just going to get a run of these, right? So what’s the punchline?
So in a standard joke, the point of the punchline is to provide the jolt that comes with a shift in your expectations based on what’s come before. We hear the set up and start trying to predict what will come next, and the punchline startles us, it punches us by denying our expectations, by giving us a new way to see the premise.
Dad jokes generally don’t punch very hard, which is why this shift from the expected punch line of “nice belt” to “I’m gonna need to see your passport” is so effective. Dad jokes don’t go there, see? They’re silly and clichéd and sometimes frustrating and always low-stakes.
Huey continues this in the next lines.
You seem to have an allergic reaction on your skin
but let’s not make any rash decisions,
health care is complicated.
The follow up punchline for this one is pretty good. Hits harder now than it did when it was first published before the pandemic. I feel like most things do. There’s more along these lines.
Why do I take peanut butter
on my morning commute?
I think you know. Sandwich
walks into a bar, bartender says
sorry we don’t make gay wedding cakes
here. Secretary of Education
walks into a school, bartender says
sorry we’re so poor. Chicago walks
into America, bartender says
look at all those black people killing each other.
Electoral College walks into November,
bartender says thank you for saving
us from Chicago. I’m starting to dislike
this bartender. You might think this
isn’t funny. I get it. I didn’t like the beard
either, until it grew on me.
That last four lines in this run were necessary because the tension was thick by then. “I’m starting to dislike this bartender” is standup quality. I can see Huey there on stage holding the pause after saying it, maybe laughing along with the audience a bit.
There’s also a little subversion of the joke form going on because typically the bartender is either the straight man or the butt of the joke, but here he’s delivering these asshole punchlines that aren’t really punchlines. And that’s the point.
But I think the most serious moment in the poem comes in the next lines.
At some point I came to understand
my job was to make the world
more bearable for my children.
It’s possible I was wrong & anyway
I don’t think I’m very good at it.
And yeah, me too. Or maybe the job is to at least to try to make it more bearable. Sometimes it feels like the “we do the best we can with what we have” sentiment is a cop-out, and sometimes it is, but really in the end that’s the gig. It’s glorious at times and it’s shitty at times and it’s always, always hard if you’re actually doing the job.
Huey ends the poem, as he must, with a joke.
No one’s laughing. I’m not laughing.
I have broken my arm in several places,
now I’m thinking it would be best
not to go to those places anymore.
That’s a good punchline. I’m not going to explain why. That would ruin the joke.
Thank you so much for reading this long. What are your favorite dad jokes? Or favorite poems that are focused around humor? Or both? I’d love to read more of them.
I believe the license plate in question, surrounded by all that Iowa and ISU stuff, is clearly declaring they’ve found their “FOREVER HOME” (as in pet adoption). Maybe the driver was originally from out of state, moved to Iowa, fell in the love with the place, and decided to stay.
This is the first thing I’ve seen you write where you refer to me as “my wife” instead of just Amy, and I kept hearing it in Borat-voice. 😁