I suppose I should count my blessings when it comes to dad memes. The whole “dad bod” thing seems counterintuitive to me. But hey, if standards of beauty are shifting my way for the first time in my life, who am I to demur?
But I only recently became aware of the “dad jokes” meme. Fittingly this was courtesy of my twentysomething son who reacted to my “lol” at a joke somebody posted on Facebook. To wit: “My wife insisted that I stop doing flamingo impressions. I had to put my foot down.”
He was unimpressed. “I guess that’s a dad joke,” he said.
Say what you will about my overripe hotness, but aspersions on my sense of humour are something — as Dorothy Parker said with grammatical precision — “up with which I will not put.”
I have spent much of my career being paid to be funny — or to be precise, to try to make other people funny. I did three years on the writing staff of the NHL Awards. You try to write gags that will get a laugh when haltingly delivered by Brett Hull.
So, has time left me behind? Are the things I find funny now quaint anachronisms to a generation that laughs at GIFs?
The flamingo joke is the kind of absurdist wordplay that could have come from Steven Wright, or more recently from the late Mitch Hedberg (who is idolized by millennials. Hey, I KNEW Mitch! Who’s cool now, whippersnappers? Now, get off my lawn!).
I looked into the dad joke meme. And sure enough, it is fairly recent. Wikipedia — which has gauged a sustained growth in its online searches since 2014 — calls it, “a short joke, typically a pun, presented as a one-liner or a question and answer, but not a narrative. Generally inoffensive, dad jokes are stereotypically told by fathers among family.”
Well, I suppose it does make for a less risky ice-breaker over Thanksgiving dinner than, “I think Doug Ford is an idiot who’s destroying Ontario! Who’s with me?”
But take away the “dad” part of it, and what you’re describing is called a “joke.” At the risk of getting overly serious about comedy, the dad part is ageist.
If you’re my age, there were “elephant jokes” when you were a kid, and they were both inoffensive and surrealist. My favourite remains: “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a jar of peanut butter? — You either get a jar of peanut butter that never forgets, or an elephant that sticks to the roof of your mouth.”
Arguably, the first elephant joke (and maybe the first dad joke) could be attributed to Groucho Marx, as the explorer Capt. Spaulding in 1930’s Animal Crackers. “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
(Side note: If you are a fan of puns and wordplay, the great Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith, who for the record is 57, devotes his Twitter feed almost entirely to these. Sample: “VETERINARIAN: So, I had to operate on this Wildebeest last week! – ME: Really? How did it go? – VETERINARIAN: Today he’s as good as Gnu.”)
But if puns and wordplay are the jokester’s playground for some of my generation (a premise I don’t entirely accept), what exactly is millennial humour? The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig took a stab at it a few years ago, looking at shows like Tim and Eric and Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman and the Skittles ads where two teens pick contagious “Skittles pox” off each other’s faces.
“Unlike the subcultural stoner comedy of yesteryear or the giddily absurd humour of classics like Monty Python, this breed of millennial surrealism is both mainstream and tangibly dark,” she wrote. “It aims for wide swaths of young people, leaning in to feelings of worry, failure and dread.”
While I can certainly see the comedic attraction of worry, failure and dread, it was probably no surprise that the article itself inspired about a year’s worth of “Why is millennial humour so weird?” memes.
It is almost certainly as wrong to generalize about the humour of an entire generation as it is to do so about their work ethic. But it seems comedy has always been a generational dividing line. I once interviewed, in his dotage, the late Sid Caesar, whose Your Show of Shows was a landmark of live TV comedy in the ‘50s (and the comedy-writing training ground of the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon).
It behooved me to bring up Saturday Night Live, since it was the only contemporary example of weekly live network comedy, and arguably a continuation of Caesar’s legacy. He would have none of it, his tone turning contemptuous as he dismissed SNL as “kinderspiel.” (Literally a play performed by children).
And I was there when a seventysomething Lucille Ball did a press conference for her last, ill-advised sitcom, a mid-‘80s ABC series called Life with Lucy that only aired eight of its 13 episodes before it was cancelled. She was so sensitive to feeling out of time that she exploded when someone asked her how comedy had changed in 30 years.
“Has comedy changed in 5,000 years?” she replied. “It’s the same thing. You knock the top hat off the boss. It goes back to Socrates, for Ch—sakes!”
I pondered whether Socrates indeed had a top hat, and whether it would be funny to knock it off. I also felt a little sad because she was struggling with being funny. To be fair, George Burns, Carol Burnett, Don Rickles, Betty White, Bob Newhart and others would prove that comedy could indeed age well.
And the same son who sneered at the flamingo gag watched the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup on one of my backyard movie nights and laughed loudly.
He may deny it now, but there are witnesses.