Remembering Dad and his jokes on Father's Day
JANESVILLE -- My father and I were cut from same cloth.
Same curiosity about everything, same distractibility and absolutely the same sense of humor.
He introduced me to James Thurber, Robert Benchley and P.G. Wodehouse. I graduated to Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding.
He’s been gone for four years, and I’ll tell you when I miss him the most. It’s not Father’s Day, his birthday or the date of his death. It’s when I say one of his punchlines, and nobody laughs. It’s worse when I have to explain it. At those moments, I feel alone in the universe.
My favorite line came from a vaudeville routine starring Bert Lahr, who later went to star as the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz.”
During some imaginary crisis in a vaudeville show, Lahr, dressed in suit, tie and bowler hat, put his knees together and said in a high and squeaky voice, “Oh, if there was a man here, HE would do something!”
When I was little, it was funny because my old dad was saying something in a high and squeaky voice.
When I was older, it was funny because the notion of needing a man for anything -- changing a tire, using a table saw, living a life -- was anathema to me. My dad taught me how to use the saw, and I learned how to live my own life.
So you had to be in on the joke.
That’s what dad jokes are all about really: Being in on the joke, being part of a family tradition.
Every time we went to the theater, a trip of at least an hour from our rural Minnesota home, my dad would say, “Did anybody bring the piano? I left the tickets on the piano.”
We never laughed, but it was part of the ritual.
When I asked around for dad jokes, most of them came with stories.
Den Adler, a local photographer and writer, told me that when he was a kid, his family occasionally traveled to Madison from their home in Waunakee. On the way home, they would take Fordem Avenue.
“Every time he said, ‘Fordem Avenue. Is it a canna or canta?’” Adler wrote on Facebook.
Get it? Can afford it or can’t afford it.
Somewhere I hear Harpo Marx honking his horn.
It’s the ritual, the one-liner, that we remember first, and it provides a link to the memories.
When Adler’s dad drove away from their house, or away from anywhere really, he would say, “And we’re OFF! Like a dirty shirt on Saturday night!”
You’ve got to know some history to get that one, too. People used to bathe once a week, usually on Saturday night, so they’d be clean and tidy for Sunday services.
Alder’s dad also used to say, “I’m busier than a one-armed paperhanger with hives.” Again, you’d have to know what a paperhanger was.
Some dad jokes were funny because Dad was telling them.
For baby boomers, and even some members of Generation X, Dad was the guy who meant business. When Mom said, “Just wait until your father gets home,” it was a death sentence. She might as well have said, “Pack your bags and make a will.”
So when Dad told a joke, it was sort of a surprise -- even if it was stupid. When I asked people for their favorite dad jokes, several people sent me this three-part classic.
Do you want to hear a dirty joke? Two pigs fell in the mud.
Wanna hear a clean joke? The pigs took a bath with bubbles.
Wanna hear another dirty joke? Bubbles was the neighbor!
Dad's jokes seemed to driven by car rides.
When Dad wasn’t shouting, “Don’t make me stop this car!” he was telling jokes like these:
Driving past the graveyard, Dad asks kids, “Hey, how many dead people do you think are in that cemetery?” The kids shout out answers. The correct answer? All of the people in the cemetery are dead.
Variation: Driving past the cemetery, Dad says, “Look kids, it’s the dead center of town!”
Another great one: Dad is driving and crosses the railroad tracks. He tells the kids, “Hey, a train just went through here.” When the kids ask how he knows that, he says, “It left its tracks.”
My dad’s variation on the joke invoked French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose last name is almost -- but not quite -- pronounced “To-lose-la-tracks.”
Now, kids sit in the back seat watching videos on screens that pop out of the ceiling or play games on their phones.
Also, modern fathers have rational conversations with children.
Neil Johnson, a Gazette business reporter and father of twins, Quinn and Levi, recently had this rational parenting moment: “You’re going to sit there on the porch for five minutes, Quinn. You’re going to sit there because we don’t beat our brother across the face with a garden hose.”
At no point did either child feel like he needed to make a will.
Will screen time and emergence of hip dads mean the end of dad jokes?
Of course not. Dad jokes exist beyond the car. Many young dads, who probably consider themselves pretty cool, sent me their jokes.
James Debilzen, former editor of the Milton Courier, sent me this one:
Daughter: What time is it?
Debilzen: Time for you to get a watch.
That joke is part of the rich tradition of “dad gives annoying answer” jokes.
Kid: What are we having for dinner?
Kid: Dad, I’m bored.
Dad: Nice to meet you, bored. I’m Dad.
Kid: Hey, Dad...
Dad: Hay is for horses, straw is cheaper, and grass is free.
Kelly Delaney-Klinger sent in a dad joke that has been used for three generations.
While shaking hands with a younger person, Dad asks, “Are you nervous?”
Younger person usually answers, “No.”
Dad: “Then why are you shaking?”
“My late father-in-law shared this one with me during one of our first meetings,” Delaney-Klinger wrote in an email. “My husband, of course, knows it. Unfortunately, our oldest son, who is 21 and not yet a dad, already has used it on a friend of his.”
There you have it. Three generations of a single dad joke, no car ride needed.
Speaking of car rides, while we’re stopped, does anyone need to drain their radiator?
Are you sure?
Because I don’t want to stop again until we get home.