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The Fatherhood of the Traveling Dad Joke

To this day, whenever someone asks me for the time, I need to fight the strong innate reflex to answer, "Time to buy a watch!" That's because when I was a child, and I made the mistake of asking my dad the time, that would be his default response. Before I had ever heard of the concept of the "dad joke" I knew by memory all of the jokes that my father cherished and repeatedly endlessly, to the delight of myself and the palpable irritation of everyone else.

Sure enough, these jokes all fit snugly into the category of the "dad joke." They were, and remain corny, cheesy and ancient. They are also, by definition, toothless, guaranteed to offend no one in the world and so aggressively devoid of edge that they make late-period Jay Leno look as provocative as G.G Allin by comparison.

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One of the hallmarks of the dad joke is that they never change, and have generally been in general circulation for much longer than the dads reverently reciting them, have been alive. Another of my dad's favorite groaners, introducing himself as, "You can call me anything you want, except late for supper!" has probably been traded as a form of folklore between cheesy, joke-loving patriarchs since before the Civil War.

When I think about the happiest moments of my childhood, laughter is at the center of many of them. As corny as his jokes were, and are, my dad made me laugh. I loved to hear him tell jokes or make up bedtime stories spontaneously for me and my sister as we lie in our bunk beds just before going to sleep. And I loved to make my dad laugh, either by repeating his jokes or making up my own.

...being annoyed by your dad's cheesy-ass dad jokes is a form of connection in its own right.

Dad jokes were a sacred bond for me and my dad growing up. They are to this day. But my dad's dad jokes served another essential purpose as well. Looking back, they were really introductions to comedy. They implicitly taught me what jokes looked and sounded like, and the mechanisms by which they worked. And the genius of a really brilliantly stupid dad joke is that it's so simple that even a small child can understand it. Indeed, if a three-year-old doesn't understand a dad joke (which is a very different thing than understanding a dad joke, and understandably not finding it funny), then it has not succeeded. If a three-year-old rolls his eyes or groans at the conclusion of a dad joke, however, the joke has invariably succeeded, because that is the exact right response to a true dad joke, and because being annoyed by your dad's cheesy-ass dad jokes is a form of connection in its own right.

Now that I am a dad many of my most treasured moments with my own son revolve around laughter as well. At eight-and-a-half months old, he hasn't yet said his first words, but there's already so much in the world that makes him laugh. He laughs when my wife or myself make silly sounds or talk in goofy voices. He laughs when his assortment of talking toys squeals some obnoxious little jingle designed to delight babies and induce punishing migraines in adults. He giggles when he looks at a pretty girl's face after batting his long eyelashes flirtatiously, then looking away impishly, as if suddenly made bashful. He giggles when he sees bubbles and god willing, when he's old enough, he will be indulgent enough to laugh at my dad jokes.

But I'm also excited about passing down a sizable assortment of groaners, duds and eye-rollers as a way of keeping my father with me wherever I go.

I'm excited about sharing these terrible exercises in cornball humor with my son. I hope that they form a lifelong bond between us the way they did between me and my dad. But I'm also excited about passing down a sizable assortment of groaners, duds and eye-rollers as a way of keeping my father with me wherever I go. This is particularly important to me now that I'm moving out of the city where we now both live (Chicago) to a city (Atlanta) hundreds of miles away. After my dad passes on, his jokes will live on after him. As legacies go, that's not quite the same as leaving me a corporation to run, but it's one I would be proud to claim for my own. My dad taught me how to laugh, and how to make other people (or at least himself) laugh and I will always be grateful for that.

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Not surprisingly, my wife has a much different relationship with dad jokes than I do, although her dad is also quite the joker, with a much more ribald sense of humor than my dad and his own set of gags and one-liners he has cultivated and held onto through the decades. When I make dad jokes, many of which originated with my own dear dad, she almost invariably rolls her eyes, expresses irritation and implores me to retire the joke from my shabby comic arsenal. That is the appropriate response to those jokes—albeit not one that will ever lead to me actually retiring any jokes.

In the end, the most a dad joker like myself can hope for is a dad who handed down the gospel of the dad joke to me, a son who will hopefully cherish terrible comedy the same way I do, and perhaps most importantly of all, a long-suffering wife willing to reluctantly tolerate jokes whose enormous worth have little to do with their often negligible comic value.

Photo via Twenty20/Dar By

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