Similarly, oyaji gyagu in Japan usually involve puns and wordplay, and as Choi points out, “it’s so unfunny when middle-aged men tell oyaji jokes in Japan that young people (those in their 20s and 30s) show hostility and hatred toward the joke-tellers.” But the real point of oyaji gyagu, it seems, is similar to the real point of dad jokes: As the English-language newspaper The Japan Times explained in 2013, “More than entertaining the hearer of such jokes, it seems that the pleasure is with the teller.”
When I asked Dubinsky, who’s studied language traditions native to countries in Africa and Asia, whether dads in any other cultures were also known for goofy puns, he didn’t know offhand, but he hypothesized that the commonality of interpersonal joking, especially between people of different generations, could reveal how parent-child relationships are expected to work in a particular society: “If there are rigid rules about generational respect, rigid formulas for intergenerational discourse,” he told me, father-and-child relations would probably not be so casual as to include silly jokes.
Still, he said, he couldn’t be totally sure without having raised kids himself in another culture—and he’d only ever been an American dad, raising kids in America.
“At the beginning of American history, the father was a towering figure in the family,” wrote E. Anthony Rotundo, a historian and the author of American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity From the Revolution to the Modern Era, in 1985. In the agricultural, colonial society of early America, the father’s control of the land he owned allowed him to exercise control over the rate at which his children gained their independence and when and who they married; colonial fathers were generally considered to be their families’ chief disciplinarians and the natural guardians of the sons of the family (while daughters were more likely to be considered children of their mothers). The typical American father-son relationship at that point in history, Rotundo wrote, could be characterized as “distant, didactic, and condescending.”
By the 18th century, the move away from agrarian living and the subsequent rise of cities and paid employment outside the home meant that “the middle-class father was less of a presence in the home,” though he retained his role of the “ultimate disciplinarian” when he was home. Just a few generations later, Rotundo wrote, “the 19th-century father often lay outside the main emotional currents that flowed within his own home … Family letters of the time provide us with examples of the father’s emotional distance. When fathers wrote to absent sons, for instance, they offered advice and stuck to whatever other business prompted the letter.”
That began to change, however—at least according to Rotundo’s telling—at the end of the 1800s, when, “taking advantage of dwindling demands for patriarchal formality, some men developed new kinds of relationships with their children. Such fathers expressed affection with growing ease, sought close emotional ties with their children, and enjoyed playful hours with sons and daughters.”