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Why Are Dads Hilarious? An Investigation

It’s a warm spring afternoon in Central Park. A group of friends and I are sprawled out on a formation of boulders, like the mermaids in Peter Pan. I’ve just thought of the perfect conversation starter.

“If you were a dad,” I ask the other three women, “what kind of Dad would you be?”

We go around, each choosing a monosyllabic Dad Name – Pete, Doug, Jeff. We have a Pun Dad; a Dog Dad who loves it when people ask, “Are you walking them or are they walking you?”; and a Sports Dad who loves to watch “the game” (“If you have to ask which game, you don’t get it”). “I have two daughters, Carly and Shannon,” says my friend Abby, a Bemused but Supportive Dad. “I love them, but I wish they’d get dressed a little faster, because we have to get to the airport three hours early.” At this point, we interrupt Abby with such a raucous burst of laughter that we attract looks.

As alumnae of a women’s college, my friends and I share a fascination for gender, particularly the absurdities of traditional masculinity that you come to appreciate when you spend a lot of time away from it.

As alumnae of a women’s college, my friends and I share a fascination for gender, particularly the absurdities of traditional masculinity that you come to appreciate when you spend a lot of time away from it. Dads are also the closest we’ve come to understanding masculinity — most of us have lived with a dad — and yet we are still confounded by its quirks (Why does he care about golf so much?).

Before I go any further, allow me to make some vital distinctions about what we’re discussing here. We are not talking about how dads are sexy, although they often are, having embraced responsibility and their most nurturing qualities. We are not talking about de iure dads who do not embrace their dadness, and we’re not excluding de facto dads who haven’t actually fathered anyone and yet still love to rock a double-barrel glasses-and-sunglasses look. We’re also definitely not talking about daddies, because I don’t have that kind of time right now, and anyway, this SNL skit already exists.

To return to the main point: dads are hilarious. Several years ago, Daniel Ortberg (someone who has his own reasons to be fascinated by masculinity) spawned one of my all-time favorite Twitter threads (no longer live on Twitter itself) simply by writing, “Please tell me the most Dad thing your dad has ever done.” The responses were incredible.

So I began polling my friends: Why, exactly, are dads so funny?

My friend Ketan theorized that dads are overcompensating for not spending as much time with their kids. Like a circus performer, your dad breaks a sweat trying to amuse you. He stuffs sentences full of puns. He pronounces the words “Target” and “garbage” in the way you just heard them in your head, in your dad’s voice. A dad in a typical heterosexual partnership is a rodeo clown coming in during the moments of greatest need to pratfall and redirect some of the stress of parenting.

Dads are the purest manifestation of ineffectual masculinity, bumbling but benign.

But lots of what makes dads funny is completely inadvertent. For my female friends and me, dads are the purest manifestation of ineffectual masculinity, bumbling but benign. (“I can’t be sexist; I have a dad,” my friend Abby said wryly.)

More to the point, dads — especially good dads — are too busy being dads to feel self-conscious about their masculinity. They’re sleep-deprived and busy; they can’t be bothered to keep up with the work of appearing rugged and emotionless. They’re also getting older and feeling more confident in themselves. They’re distilled down to their essences, prioritizing their true, often silly passions (watching football, playing golf, shopping at Costco), and it’s disarming and delightful to see a dad who’s become so emotionally open. Many of us envy dads the freedom they’ve found to be unapologetically themselves – a freedom they have both because they enjoy an elevated position of privilege in our social hierarchies, and because they seem simply not to care about others’ opinions. A dad is a man who has let go of the most toxic parts of masculinity and settled into a more relaxed, forgiving performance of masculinity.

Jurassic Park is basically the story of Alan Grant’s ascent into the role of Dad.

For a case study, let’s talk about one of my favorite dads in pop culture: Dr. Alan Grant. Jurassic Park is basically the story of his ascent into the role of Dad — his dadpotheosis, if you will. (And boy, I hope you will.) In all the hubbub of getting chased around by dinosaurs, he has to let go of his macho disdain for kids. And look how much more relaxed he is at the end of the movie, having let go of that weight. He’s going to go home and put on some sandals with socks, and he’s going to be so happy and comfortable. How dadspirational.

At its core, humor works by surprising your brain with an unexpected break from a pattern. So it makes sense that dads are hilarious: What’s a more surprising break from a pattern than a man who is also a dad?

Featured image photo credit: Universal Pictures

Published inCulturePersonal

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© Mary Gaulke 2021