If a dad joke gets cracked on a deserted street at five in the morning, does anybody groan?
I’m out for a run this morning. Five AM. Hazy moon floating behind the clouds. Hint of fog hanging in the air. Not a soul in sight.
I round a curve coming around the back of a shopping center, and there, in the middle of the road, a Dark Thing.
Dark Things always give me pause on the morning run — there are coyotes in the area, neighborhood dogs escaped from their backyards. At a distance, in the morning blackness, the shadowy shape could be anything. Usually it turns out to be roadkill, or a sad discarded sweatshirt. Sometimes it’s a stray cat or, in springtime, a rabbit, which bolts for cover long before I get close.
But as I drew closer, this Dark Thing resolved itself first into the suggestion of a shopping cart — which I resolved to move from the middle of the road — and then, when it began to move on its own, into a deer. What’s important is not how I mistook a deer for a shopping cart. What’s important is what I said.
I couldn’t help it. It just bubbled up and popped out, like a tooth-rattling belch after 76 ounces of diet soda. I was literally helpless.
The dad joke.
How I hated them in my youth. My dad has a bottomless supply of them and would let fly at the slightest provocation:
What time is it? Time to get a watch.
I need to take a shower. Where would you take it?
I’m getting a haircut. Really? Which one?
But in my adulthood, I have assimilated them, Borg-like. They come out as naturally as breathing.
I cringe inwardly when I say them — but I can’t help saying them. Now that I have kids, the part of my brain that would ordinarily stop me from saying these embarrassing, obvious jokes has shut itself down and boarded up the windows like the last man out of a dying mining town.
Why does the dad joke persist? Nobody likes a dad joke, except, perhaps, for the dad saying it. The joke exists, rather, for the sole purpose of irritation. The dad joke’s payoff is not in a delighted shock of laughter, but rather, in the rolling of the eyes, the put-upon sigh, the pained groan, or, best of all, the reflexive facepalm.
And here I am, all alone on the street at five in the morning, saying “oh dear” at the sight of a deer, as if to elicit such a response from the trees. And in the silence that followed? When I realized what I had just done — cracked a dad joke to nobody, apparently for the pure joy of it, for the sake of the joke itself like a truth that MUST be told, the future-seer shouting in the streets about impending calamity even as he knows nobody believes him — when it dawned on me that I have become this thing? That dad jokes are now a part of me?
The groan came after all.
It came from me.
Let the circle be unbroken.