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Tony Soprano Was an Unrivaled Master of the Dad Joke

The TV mobster wouldn’t have been such a fascinating and tragic figure without his corny sense of humor

Welcome to The Daddy Issue, our very fatherly tip of the cap to the father figures in our lives as well as all the fatherly stuff they can’t help but do — from pretending they’re not asleep on the couch, to the dad jokes that make even Tony Soprano smile. We’ll talk to famous dads and their equally famous progeny and also deconstruct fatherly influence in each and every one of its forms. In doing so, we hope to come out the other side with a better understanding of our own — and everyone else’s — daddy issues. Read all of the stories here.

The Sopranos wouldn’t have been the triumph it was, and may have failed altogether, without the charisma of Tony Soprano. The mafia don of North Jersey had to be likable in order for you to stick with him through his many acts of violence and cruelty. Show creator David Chase credited beloved actor James Gandolfini for the audience’s sympathy toward his lead sociopath, once noting, “I think maybe with another actor in that part you would not be rooting for Tony Soprano quite so much.” But Gandolfini had support from the writers, particularly in the corny, disarming sense of humor they gave Tony. The guy was never, ever without a dad joke.  

Sure, sometimes Tony just wanted to make his kids cringe with a stupid pun — the essence of dad humor is second-hand embarrassment. But the gags were also a screen, an act that would have you believe he was a harmless goofball, not a depressed, angry and dangerous criminal. He could also use this side of his persona to tilt reality in the way he preferred. After foiling an attempt on his life, he pretends it was a carjacking gone wrong and, in the hospital, says of the SUV his attackers supposedly wanted, “I guess nobody told them about the kind of gas mileage that thing gets.” 

An upset Meadow protests, “Not funny, dad,” but in so doing accepts his cover story. In his therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, meanwhile, Tony resorts to dad jokes in order to evade the lines of questioning that make him uncomfortable. His smirking reply when asked if he’s had his prostate examined: “Hey, I don’t let anybody even wag their finger in my face.”  

Were these one-liners always manipulative in one way or another? I wouldn’t go that far. But they did evince a need — which Tony would have vehemently denied — to be liked. They also hinted at a desperation, in a world of decline and death, to keep things weightlessly light. And it was often this lightness that lulled victims into Tony’s orbit, this dad-at-the-grill banter that convinced them he was a friend and not a calculating opportunist. One minute, he’s got you chuckling; the next, he’s taken over your sporting goods store to settle a gambling debt.  

As viewers, we fell for it too, trusting over the first few seasons that whatever he did wrong, Tony was a softie at heart. Then, in Seasons Four and Five, Chase brutally reminded us of the moral vacuum within the man, his boundless capacity for spite and insatiable narcissism.

Once in a while, Tony even dropped a dad joke that gave a Freudian glimpse into his business acumen, which is to say his gift for extortion. Meeting his daughter’s boyfriend Finn, and playing the part of the paternal teddy bear, he confirms the young man is studying to be a dentist. Carmela frets that it’s not safe for the couple to leave their apartment door open, to which Finn says that he’ll keep Meadow safe. “Hear that?” Tony chimes in. “Anybody bothers her, he’ll knock their teeth out. Then he can put ’em back in, too!” 

He’s playing around, yet the setup here — hurt someone so you can charge them for an expensive cure — feels close to the sort of scheme he’d pull in his day job. And, of course, there’s the implicit threat against Finn himself.

In the most poignant moments, though, you got from these quips a sense of the man Tony might have become were it not for his dysfunctional parents and early introduction to organized crime. By allowing you to forget his “true” nature for a moment, they posed the counterfactual: A Tony Soprano who really does work in waste management, loves spending time with his family and has hardly run afoul of the law except for a couple of speeding tickets. 

A thread of tragedy in The Sopranos is that Tony wasn’t able to imagine that for himself — that he countenanced grift and bloodshed as a means to supply his children with a clean future he’d deserved as much as they do. The humanizing effect of his humor, and the much-admired comedy of the series overall, weren’t only means of securing our interest. They were notes of a banished innocence.