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  • Writer's pictureRusty Pencil

The origins of dad jokes, and why they'll always be, and should be, crap.

You hum it son, I'll play it. A father playing the accordion for his son. Black and white 1950s illustration.
There's nothing like a good old dad joke, and this is nothing like a good old dad joke. Or maybe it is.

I admit it. I stole the line from someone else. From a chimp, to be precise. The original joke was:

‘Dad, do you know the piano’s on my foot?’

‘You hum it son, I’ll play it.’

This famous punchline was first aired on TV in 1971 in one of the much-loved PG Tips ads featuring a couple of chimps moving a piano. In my early days as a very junior copywriter hawking my wares across London I had an interview with Tony Toller, the jolly nice chap who wrote these ads. I didn’t get the job so missed out on millions of free mugs of PG Tips tea, and never got the chance to meet Mr Shifter, the dad chimp who delivered this line.

I remember this joke becoming a playground favourite, and many dads of that era regularly recite it today. It plays on a standard joke format and is one of the most famous and earliest dad jokes told in Britain, though most certainly, not the first.

The first dad joke probably wasn’t a joke

So when did the first dad joke annoy the ears of some poor unsuspecting victim? According to good old Wikipedia, the term dad joke was first seen in print in 1987, yet dad jokes were being told long before this. Dads have been around for a very, very long time and so have bad jokes, so it’s highly likely that dads have been making bad jokes the moment they discovered they could mangle words to make everyone groan.

In fact, bad jokes have been around for at least 1600 years. We know this because of a famous old joke book. A couple of Greek chaps called Hierocles and Philagrius decided to compile a book of jokes. We have no idea why. Maybe they had a lot of time on their hands or they wanted an excuse to get away from the kids. They called it Philogelos, roughly translated as Laughter Lover. It’s a misleading title as these two chaps must have been accountants with a rather serious and earnest outlook on life as most of these jokes they logged into their book aren’t that funny at all. To our modern ears many of these gags leave us baffled. British comedian Jim Bowen did his best to bring these jokes to life in a live gig, but as with most events from the past, you had to be there to appreciate the cultural nuances.

Dad jokes: it’s the way you tell ‘em

Philogelos is the oldest existing book of jokes, but you can’t really call them jokes at all. They’re more like silly gags and scenarios or nonsensical stories that target stereotypes: misers, cowards, idiots, wits, simpletons, doctors, oversexed wives, eggheads, the list goes on, thus proving our present everyday humour hasn’t evolved much at all.

There are 265 of these so-called jokes and it’s hard to pick out a genuine rib tickler, though here are a couple that I like. I have slightly paraphrased them to give them rhythm and sense:

An idiot goes to the doctor and says, ‘Doctor, when I wake up, I’m all dizzy, then after half an hour, I’m OK.’

The doctor replies, ‘Well, wait half an hour before waking up.’

I see that you’re rolling in the aisles.

A friend asks an idiot, ‘Can I borrow a cloak - just to go down to the countryside?’

The idiot replies, ‘Sorry, I’ve only got one that goes down to the ankles.’

Your belly must be aching. Actually, I think that’s quite a good dad joke by modern standards, but that’s as good as it gets.

Why are dad jokes so crap?

They’re crap because we want them to be crap. And maybe because they need to be. There’s a school of thought that suggests dad jokes are more prevalent today because they’re an antidote to the nastiness of social media. Our kids are increasingly exposed to so much vitriol and unpleasant banter that somehow they see dad jokes as a break away from all the dark nasty stuff that pervades the media. Dad may not be very funny, but he’s safe and unthreatening. No-one gets hurt. I’m not totally convinced by this, though I think there’s an element of truth in it. Light relief is always welcome.

Dad jokes are more than crap jokes

When a dad tells a joke he’s sharing more than a joke: he’s participating in a brand. We now have dads on social media scrapping the bottom of the pun and innuendo barrel, gaining fame on the back of it. Dad jokes need to be lame and innocuous because that’s the brand. We can’t have it any other way. And some dads understand this really well.

On Twitter, for example, @dadsaysjokes has over 350K followers with 2.4 million on Instagram. The hashtag #dadjokes and #dadjokesdaily are popular searches on Facebook leading to various dad joke sites. We even have dad joke face-offs between well-known, and not so well-known, comedians being watched by millions. @AllDefDadJokes Will Ferrell v Mark Walhberg has over 22 million views.

So why has the dad joke turned into a popular brand?

The answer is simple: because there’s money to be made from it. From sponsorship, advertising, selling t-shirts, mugs, you name it, a dad joke will be on it to make money. Even the greeting card industry has got in on the act. It’s awash with dad joke designs. Dad jokes sell. It looks like dad jokes are here to stay, so we’ll all have to put with the groans and eye-rolls for some time to come and as long as the money keeps rolling in.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with one of my fav dad jokes, though it probably isn’t a proper dad joke as it’s actually quite good:

A rabbi, priest and a monk walk into a bar. The bartender looks up at them and says, ‘What’s this? Some sort of joke?’


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