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Dad Jokes, Dad Jeans, Dad Dancing: When Did Father Figures Become a Total Joke?

“We mock the things we are to be,” noted Mel Brooks in his and Carl Reiner’s legendary 1961 comedy sketch “The 2000 Year Old Man.”

Case in point: To celebrate March Madness this year, Jimmy Fallon invited viewers to tweet their favorite “dad jokes” using the hashtag #MarchDadness.

Making fun of Dad has become way more than a bit on the Tonight Show, though. In addition to Dad’s lame jokes, we mock his jeans, his shorts, his dancing, his sandals and his bod. In fact, there are memes, Tumblrs, Instagram accounts and television commercials devoted to Dad shaming. “Ad after ad makes doltish Dad the butt of all jokes,” wrote Slate’s Seth Stevenson in 2012. “He’s outwitted by his children. He’s the target of condescending eye rolls from his wife. He’s a dumb, incompetent, sometimes even selfish oaf — but his family loves him anyway.”

A 2011 Huggies ad, for example — which was scrubbed from the internet after a revolt from insulted dads — claims it put its diapers “to the toughest test imaginable: dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for five days,” implying men are inattentive parents who can barely change a diaper.

But why have dads become such an easy comedy target? After all, for seemingly generations, they were either revered or feared, practically godlike (they are, after all, a legitimate creator — of you). To properly investigate, I asked two veteran comedy writers — Jim Vallely, executive producer of Arrested Development and Ritch Shydner, a “comic’s comic” who’s been telling jokes for decades and recently published a book about his career — if they could explain why we all seem to be having a laugh at Dad’s expense these days.

Shydner chalks it up to the changing face of masculinity in America. “Comedy always reflects what’s going on in culture,” he explains. “The father doesn’t have the stature he used to have. There was so much male dominance for so many years, and now the pendulum is swinging the other way in an equal and opposite reaction — law of comedy physics. ”

“Dads get angry,” adds, Vallely, who also wrote on Golden Girls and My Wife and Kids. “Dads have giant egos. Dads try to do things they’re not equipped to do. And it’s funny to watch them fail.”

And yet, a cursory glance at dads throughout history suggests we’ve never before given him quite so much shit.

Paleolithic Dad

Millions of years ago, it was dangerous for babies to crawl around the cave — open fires, deadly insects and all — so they needed to be carried at all times, which was largely the father’s responsibility. As explained on the Bootcamp for New Moms blog, “We dads developed a strong protective instinct as cavemen, as well as a nurturing instinct. We were hands-on with our babies 24/7 in our little caves except when out after an extra big mammoth because we had another mouth to feed.”

This created strong bonds of fraternal loyalty. Adult sons and their fathers hunted together for long distances while mothers and grandmothers looked after the children and foraged locally. Point being, it’s likely they weren’t giving Dad shit about his bearskin cap or the fact that most of his jokes involved puns.

Medieval Dad

Fathers in the Middle Ages gave a child his name and social identity, so goofing on him essentially meant goofing on yourself. Names were constructed with the father’s given name and the addition of a suffix (-son, -sen, -fen, -søn, -ler, -zen) meaning ‘son’ or ‘daughter.’ As the Genealogy Guide explains, “the prefix ‘Mac’ or ‘Mc’ was used to denote the son of a person. For example, a person with the surname MacDonald meant that they were the son of gentleman named Donald.” Also, sons following in their father’s footsteps as knights or craftsmen trained as apprentices. The child effectively became an extra worker in the household, a relationship demanding reverence and unwavering loyalty.

Pre-Industrial Dad

Prior to the industrial revolution (1750 to 1850) many mothers died in childbirth, leaving men as single parents. It’s estimated that nearly 25 percent of Northern European children were motherless in 1599–1811, compared with just 1.3 percent today — so for many, Dad was the only parent they knew. And early American fathers were viewed as the family’s ultimate source of moral teaching and a stern disciplinarian. As journalist Jessie Dax-Setkus explains in her description of colonial family life, “[Fathers] played the role of the religious heads of household, setting a standard by leading the family in daily prayer and guiding them in proper religious and social behaviors.”

The Depression’s George Bluth Sr.

The first instance of the “dopey dad,” Vallely explains, was in the comic strip Blondie, which in the 1930s was about a flapper who married a rich kid named Dagwood whose family lost their fortune in the stock market crash (sort of like a Depression-era Bluth family). “Dad was an idiot and a suck-up to his boss. His wife was competent and his children were almost nonexistent. All he cared about was making giant sandwiches. Blondie to me is the perfect domestic comedy with a gentle, dopey dad who loves us and will take care of us.” (But also used for a laugh.)

The Early TV Dad

World War II ruined America’s appetite for a dopey dad, though, as gender roles became more entrenched. We think of the 1950s as epitomizing the prototypical American family, but those gender roles didn’t happen by accident. Between 1940 and 1945, while men were fighting abroad, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home. When men returned, they were eager to get back to work and get Rosie the Riveter back in the home. “That’s where Betty Crocker came from,” Shydner explains. “To re-establish strict gender roles from before World War II.”

Dads on TV reflected this aspirational, masculine persona, which became a fatherhood archetype. The aptly named Father Knows Best taught a generation of guys coming back from World War II what it meant to be a man in a modern family. “A lot of fathers learned from that,” Vallely explains. “For guys born in the 1920s and 1930s, their fathers were aloof. If your father was a coal miner, Dad didn’t sit down and have talks with you. It was a different mindset. There wasn’t a lot of communication.”

Father Knows Best showed guys that dad should be smarter and wiser. He would make mistakes, but not very often. He was in total control. Same for Ward Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver. “June Cleaver would be vacuuming in pearls warning [Wally and the Beav], ‘You just wait until your father comes home! He’ll figure this out,’” Shydner says. “The man was completely in control. The economy was booming; it was a good way to go!”

The Modern Family’s Idiot Dad

And so it remained for decades — strong, capable TV dads like Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy; Howard Cunningham in Happy Days; Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch; George Jetson in The Jetsons; George Jefferson in The Jeffersons; Charles Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie; Steven Keaton in Family Ties; and Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show who, like Ward Cleaver 40 years prior, epitomized the aspirational dad.

Then Married With Children changed everything.

Both Vallely and Shydner agree the current “dopey dad” trend can be traced back to Al Bundy. And Shydner should know — he played Bundy’s coworker Luke Ventura on the show. “Married With Children was a total reaction to the Cosby Show, where the dad had the wisdom and the kids were idiots. It hit because America thought it was more real. Dad’s a knucklehead who works at a crappy job at a shoe store that he hates. He’s not a physician. He’s living in the past, pining for high school glory.”

Vallely even notes that it was originally going to be called Not the Cosbys.

Al Bundy made way for Homer Simpson (“D’oh!”), Peter Griffin (“Shut up, Meg”), Phil Dunphy (“I’m a cool Dad. That’s my thang.”) and arguably every other current iteration of the dopey dad trope. And given the new economic reality, which involves men taking on “pink collar” jobs traditionally done by women — like nursing, bank tellers and kindergarten teachers — the joke’s likely not going anywhere.

But what are we really laughing at? The world’s changing. Dad is no longer the default head of the household; part of the humor in dopey dads is their effort to cling to a delusional, bygone era in which they were kings of the castle who could come home from work, kick their feet up and be served by a doting wife and children. As long as there are dads expecting this, there will be dads to be laughed at.

Plus, as my colleague Tracy Moore pointed out recently, stay-at-home dads are lagging in their domestic duties, too. As Shydner puts it: “Women can do two things. They can stay at home and raise kids, and that’s okay — no one’s going to put them down if they choose to just be a mother. Or they could have a career. Or they could do both. Guys still only have one option. You’re either a breadwinner or a schmuck.”