Bad Dad Jokes: On Lucas Mann’s “Attachments”

By Adam Fleming PettyMay 6, 2024

Bad Dad Jokes: On Lucas Mann’s “Attachments”

Attachments: Essays on Fatherhood and Other Performances by Lucas Mann

ONE OF MY MORE popular tweets fits squarely into the Bad Dad Joke genre. An image from a Dr. Seuss book sees a father sitting in a chair, a glum look on his face. His three children discuss their father’s plight in that familiar singsong cadence: “Dad is sad. Very, very sad. He had a bad day. What a day Dad had!” I took a photo of the image, pausing in the middle of reading my daughter a book so I could fire off a funny tweet. I posted the photo with my own comment, composed in the run-on sentence style of Twitter humor: “Wow @ me next time, Dr Seuss.” Sad dad! That was me! Have a laugh at my expense!

And laugh they did. The tweet quickly racked up more than a hundred likes. I was so pleased with it that I made it my pinned tweet for a few years. Anyone who visited my profile immediately saw that I was a dad, and that, being an enlightened male of the 21st century, I possessed a healthy sense of humor about the whole endeavor. Who wouldn’t want to smash that follow button?

I was also, at a level I didn’t fully appreciate, following a script. The Bad Dad Joke, as it exists across social media, hews to a specific set of criteria: make fun of yourself, but don’t get too dark; always portray yourself, never the other members of your family, as the fool; defer to your wife, the one who really has it together. The Bad Dad Joke is defined as much by what it leaves out as what it includes. Fear, rage, self-aggrandizement. By leaving out those unsavory, even potentially toxic, elements, even the great Dr. Seuss fails to fully capture the dad’s struggles. Where are those struggles supposed to go? Is that what podcasts are for?

These are some of the questions Lucas Mann asks in his new book, Attachments: Essays on Fatherhood and Other Performances. Mann is an essayist and memoirist who specializes in the grubby elements of contemporary life, mining his own life and popular culture for insights into human neediness. His previous book, Captive Audience (2018), delved into his own love for reality television, and how that love often produces a sense of revulsion within himself. What does he wish to do with his one wild and precious life, and why is it watching Jax Taylor weep over sashimi?

Across 12 essays, Attachments catalogs the travails that beset today’s young fathers. Mann examines his feelings of protectiveness while watching his daughter at the playground, considers his own issues with body image as occasioned by watching Brad Pitt eat foodstuffs throughout his film career, and watches LeBron James make fatherhood a vital pillar of his public persona. Parenthood in general, and modern fatherhood in particular, proves to be an ideal subject for Mann’s approach. The strange mix of self-deprecation and self-congratulation produces a figure of humor and even pathos. See the dad of today patting himself on the back while he cries into his coffee.


Attachments’ longest, most involved essay is a deep dive into the “dad joke,” a unique yet weirdly insubstantial strain of modern humor. There are the classics, repeated ad nauseam to the point where the original authors are long forgotten: “Dad, I’m hungry!” “Hi Hungry, I’m Dad!” The venerable genre has taken on new life in the online age, where accounts like Henpecked Hal and Dad and Buried can accumulate hundreds of thousands of followers. If you’re a parent, you’ve seen these accounts, even if you don’t recognize the names. The tone is familiar, a little grouchy, yet good-hearted. Mann convincingly demonstrates that the comedic ancestors of these accounts are the sitcom dads that were omnipresent in millennial childhoods: Danny Tanner (Bob Saget), Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill), and Ray Barone (Ray Romano), with All in the Family (featuring Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker) and The Dick Van Dyke Show rerunning on Nick at Nite. To quote a public service announcement from the era, “I learned it from watching YOU, Dad!”

In his quest to reach the beating heart of the dad joke, Mann conducts extensive interviews with the men behind some of these accounts, from the genuinely famous to the newbies with a few hundred followers. They share an appealing sameness: guys in corporate jobs, upper-middle-class, residing in the suburbs—if not exurbs—of major cities, looking for some kind of creative outlet. Some dream of becoming full-time content creators or stand-up comedians. Others are simply looking for the sort of validation that can only be provided by hordes of strangers on the internet. (Which, same.) Soon, though, Mann discovers a widespread phenomenon known as the rooms.

The rooms are the private chats where the dad jokesters, sometimes hundreds of them, gather to talk shop, share tips for engagement, and encourage one another with a startling level of earnestness, one that they would never dare display on their accounts. If tears could be shed in cyberspace, the rooms would rust from the salinity. One of the dads tells Mann, “You know, […] it’s hard for us guys to say what we’re feeling. I’ve had more guys express what they’re really feeling, I’ve expressed more, in these rooms, than in the entire rest of my life.”

Contrast that with the far broader, sometimes more honest, media ecosystem directed at mothers. Yes, there are the TikToks where impossibly put-together tradwives shuck corn while their five beatific children (of the corn) beam on, each more eerily well behaved than the last. But there are also sites like Evil Witches, which offers brutal honesty regarding the experiences of new mothers. Mann’s wife reads it regularly, as she struggles with what she retrospectively understands to be postpartum depression. Mann thrills to her recounting the latest missive, whether it’s mothers admitting to regretting having a second child or struggling with children who seem unable to reciprocate parental love.

Being a Good Liberal White Guy, Mann can’t help but be aware that, however much he may identify with the struggles of these women, they aren’t quite his own. A frequent complaint of the mothers, after all, is that their husbands regularly and spectacularly fail to rise to the occasion. “I felt seen by, buoyed by, the rueful darkness of this writing,” Mann writes, “but also, there I was, or someone like me, at the outskirts of each anecdote: a minor character or a foil.”

For more than a decade, I have been a stay-at-home father. My children are in school now, which makes it easier to, say, write book reviews/personal essays during the day. But I recall those early days of parenthood—the sleepless nights, the feedings—with something like the reticent nature of a war veteran. I did, on a few occasions, feel myself losing my mind from the weight of domestic responsibilities, like a Charlotte Perkins Gilman heroine. Yet I also share Mann’s hesitancy to claim too much of that female-coded struggle for myself. I am a Good White Ally, after all. I post LGBTQ+ memes along with photos of my cute children. I try to be a nice guy without being a Nice Guy, which means listening without an agenda and resisting the urge to chime in.

My experience compels me to insist that this is a problem. If fathers take on more of the domestic responsibilities traditionally associated with women, yet feel they can only describe their struggles in the tone of the Bad Dad Joke, they may very well grow anxious, resentful, sullen. “The most seductive part of self-deprecation is that it can feel like hard honesty, even allyship,” Mann writes. And honesty is needed most.


A delightful chapter of Attachments consists of nothing but quotations. “An Inspirational Collective Reflection on Joy, Love, and Responsibility from Some Famous Fathers of Daughters, Both Real and Imagined” compiles paternal aphorisms into an unbroken essay. I hooted with recognition when I read: “You want to see what your daddy did for you? Come here, I’ll show you. That’s right, daddy did that for you.”

By God, that’s Walter White from Breaking Bad! Specifically, the scene where Walter (Bryan Cranston) wakes up in the middle of the night to soothe his infant daughter. Pacing the house, he peels back insulation in the garage, revealing the drug money he has hidden there, money he has committed murder to acquire. I did it for you, he tells his baby daughter, for her but also for himself.

I watched, and rewatched, Breaking Bad (2008–13) obsessively when my wife was pregnant with our first child. This scene exerted some strange pull upon me. Something felt true here, the depiction of fatherhood as a mix of tenderness and violence, along with the compulsion to claim that one’s actions were committed in the effort to benefit one’s family, rather than for one’s own glorification. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, is that another scene from Breaking Bad presaged the panic attack I would soon suffer.

Toward the end of season two, Walter stops by the house of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his partner in meth production. Jesse has been using drugs again, along with his girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter). Walter finds the two of them in bed, asleep. Jane convulses, then vomits, the vomit becoming caught in her throat. If her breathing passageway isn’t cleared, she will die.

Walter can save her; he knows that. He also knows that Jane was trying to steal the drug money, so she and Jesse could run off to New Zealand. If Jane dies, that will solve a problem for Walt. And so he watches without intervening, letting her die.

Cranston’s performance in this scene is heartbreaking. The expression of pain on his face feels incredibly, uncomfortably genuine. That’s because, in part, it was. Cranston has said in interviews that, while performing the scene, the face of his real-life daughter flashed before his eyes, imposed upon the face of Jane. He felt, for a brief and interminable moment, that he was watching his own daughter die.

Something like this happened to me.

By the time my baby daughter was six months old, a solid routine was established. My wife woke up at dawn to work her retail job. I remained in bed until our daughter woke up, at which point we began our day of feedings, naps, walks in the stroller, the occasional errand, trips to the library. One night, I had a vivid sex dream. I thought little of it; the male libido, comically asserting itself in the midst of domestic responsibility. But later that morning, while I was changing my daughter’s diaper, images from that dream flashed before my eyes, horribly juxtaposed. The dream … my daughter … I was—language cannot adequately convey this—terrified.

My breathing shortened. Hastily, I finished changing my daughter and set her in the Pack ’n Play. I curled on the floor in the fetal position, blinking furiously, trying to wipe the images from my vision, from my mind. My wife found me in that position when she got home. I blubbered, trying to put the experience into words, frightened of what it would say about me.

“I have often found fatherhood to be lonely, but it’s hard to parse how much of that is a choice,” Mann writes. I thought of this experience, now safely distant in the past for me, when I read these words. Certainly, I was lonely at home with only my child. But why hadn’t I made any effort to alleviate that loneliness? Did I think I could endure it? Tough it out, walk it off, deflect my feelings with a joke? I am no one’s idea of a “manly man,” but I am as susceptible to such temptations as anyone else. Guess that’s why they call it the patriarchy.


Describing the nights when his daughter struggled to sleep, Mann writes, “I grew to dread these montages of extra consciousness that I had no control over, which always seemed to slow and delve in on memories that I had no desire to revisit.” Taking care of a baby is isolating. You are confined to the house. You keep an inhuman, sleep-destroying schedule. Of course the human mind grows fragile in such a state.

I am neither the first nor the last parent to become disturbed by the random images and thoughts tossed up by a sleep-deprived mind. Yet for me, specifically as a father, and one who stayed in the presence of his daughter for all hours of the day, those thoughts took on an unusual valence.

Look at history, at statistics, even at mythology, and you will notice a pattern: when harm is visited upon children, it is the father, more often than not, who is responsible. From Saturn devouring his children to the family annihilators of NBC’s Dateline, fathers become the threat. Every father must realize this about himself; it is, to use a masculine-coded word, his duty to recognize that he could potentially be a threat to his children, so that he never does. I saw this—I was forced to see this—as a result of my panic attack. Perhaps I had not fully realized the role I occupied. But I certainly did afterward. I took seriously my own struggles, my own fears, as a means of keeping my daughter safe. Mann writes, “Any invitation for connection, any reminder that there are those embodying a role identical to mine, makes me recede back into myself.” Yet such reminders are what fathers need most.

Recall the famous quote that gets paraphrased across every social media platform, from survey answers discussed by Margaret Atwood in her 1982 lecture “Writing the Male Character”: men are “afraid women will laugh at them”; women, on the other hand, are “afraid of being killed” by men. This irks Mann, for reasons he can’t quite voice. “[G]reat quote but also makes me feel unfairly attacked, so there you go,” he writes.

Allow me to say what he doesn’t: on its own, the out-of-context quote is missing something worth exploring. Yes, men are afraid women will laugh at them, and yes, women are afraid men will kill them. But do you know who else is afraid of men? Men. Men know all too well the capacity for violence they carry, and how they can visit that violence upon each other, upon themselves. That is the fear men must learn to master when they become fathers.

I loved Attachments. It made me feel, as they say, seen. Mann has struggled like I have, and he recounts those struggles with far more insight and humor than the most-viral post from Dad and Buried. Yet I also detected a reticence within the book. Mann recognizes how much the narrow frame of the Bad Dad Joke leaves out, while also acknowledging how tempting, even comforting, it is to contort oneself to fit into it, to live down to expectations, to reduce one’s heartache to a punny punch line, even when one knows better. But if fathers don’t tell the truth about their experiences, no one else will. We owe it to our families and ourselves.

LARB Contributor

Adam Fleming Petty is a writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His work has appeared in Paris Review Daily, Vulture, Gawker, Real Life, and many other venues. Find him on Twitter @flamingpetty.


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