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Every time we drive through farm country in my dad’s home state of Indiana, we know it’s coming. As soon as he spots it in his peripheral vision from the driver’s seat, it’s like clockwork: “Hey, you know a guy died in there?” he says, feigning nonchalance as he points to the round barn just off the highway.
There is silence, maybe a mutual Here we go glance shared between the rest of us, as my dad gets a merry little gleam in his eye. Eventually he can’t resist any longer, and he lets the punch line rip: “Couldn’t find a corner to pee in!”
My dad, once a farmer, told me this joke for the first time when I was about 8. When I interviewed my father for this story, he told me he’d heard it from his dad, also a farmer, when he was about 8. (He also boasted that he’d told my mom this joke, to her great amusement, when they were dating as teenagers; my mom then yelled into the phone that she had in fact heard it before, even at the time. Probably from her own dad, a farmer.)
It would be difficult to make the case that the “guy who died in the round barn” joke, a classic Midwest joke, is funny in its own right—though I would argue it’s pretty funny how much my dad still loves telling it. Which makes it a shining example of one of America’s great familial oral traditions: the dad joke.
In recent years, the mass-sharing capabilities of the internet have facilitated a renewed (eye-rolling, faux-begrudging) appreciation of the dad joke. The Reddit page r/dadjokes, a forum where users go to share and enjoy “the jokes that make you laugh and cringe in equal measure,” has more than 1 million subscribers and amasses several new posts every hour. The online video series Dad Jokes, which pits comedians and celebrities against each other in dad-joke-telling competitions where “if you laugh you lose,” launched in 2017 and today, in 2018, has some 999,000 followers on Facebook. Twitter users, meanwhile, frequently call each other (and themselves) out for their simplest and squeaky-cleanest puns by tweeting “#dadjoke.”