Goshen News, Goshen, IN

June 13, 2014

Father's Day cards make subjects the targets of jokes

By Katherine Shaver
The Washington Post

— There's a good chance if you receive — or give — a Father's Day card this weekend, Dad will be portrayed as a flatulent, beer-obsessed, tool-challenged buffoon who would rather hog the remote, go fishing or play golf than be with the kids.

That's what the greeting card industry thinks of dads. And apparently kids do, too, since so-called funny cards — obviously a subjective term — are the top sellers when it comes to honoring fathers.

But just who are these dads, and what century are they from?

"They're about grilling — there are a bunch of those — or handyman stuff," Peter Walker, 26, said as he looked at something for his father in the greeting card aisle at a CVS in Rockville, Maryland. So maybe a handyman card? "He's an attorney — he's not very handy."

The greeting card image of dad as incompetent boob is increasingly out of sync with today's fathers, many of whom spend as much time packing lunches and helping with homework as their own fathers spent in the Barcalounger.

But corny stereotypes still sell, greeting card companies say. The Father's Day best seller for NobleWorks Cards, a New Jersey-based publisher of humorous greeting cards, says, "Keep Calm We Found the Remote." The next best seller shows kids surrounding dad as he opens a card misspelled as "Happy Farter's Day." The third biggest seller shows "The Evolution of Dad" from ape to caveman to a guy hunkered down in front of the TV.

An informal Washington Post survey of drugstores in the Washington metropolitan area found dozens of cards based on the same themes — some image of beer, golf, a fishing pole, a TV, a recliner, caveman, hapless handyman or a joke about flatulence.

Paul Raeburn, author of the new book "Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked," said he's found bungling dad cartoons dating back to the 1920s, long before Homer Simpson began belting out his forehead-slapping "Doh!"

Such jokes, Raeburn said, might have been accurate through the 1960s, when fathers were primarily breadwinners and weren't expected to know how to change a diaper or operate a toaster oven. Now, Raeburn said, he finds them offensive because they perpetuate a stereotype contradicted by studies showing that more men are leaving jobs to raise families or viewing their roles as nurturers more than economic providers.

"I think this is the last gasp of the 'incompetent boob' Father's Day card figure," he said. "It doesn't fit anymore. Humor is based on exaggerations of things we know to be true. . . . But when the exaggeration refers to something that's not really happening anymore, then it's not funny anymore. It's just odd and inappropriate and irrelevant."

Matt Schneider, a "work-at-home" father of two young boys in New York and co-founder of the national City Dads Group, put it more bluntly: "Why do we celebrate mothers and all they do for their families, and we're really denigrating dads? I don't think anyone would send one of those cards to me, because they know I wouldn't find it funny."

So why do dad-bashing cards resonate on a holiday celebrating fatherhood? Because, greeting card companies say, despite the more modern notion of fathers as capable, hands-on caregivers, such jokes exaggerating the do-nothing or dork-dad stereotype still ring true in many families, particularly with older fathers.

"These are generalizations of our cultural stereotypes, and these cards pick that up," said Kathy Krassner, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Greeting Card Association. "They're relatable, and they sell."

Greeting card companies say funny cards work well for fathers who shy away from sentimentality, aren't particularly close to their children or, most often, serve as the corny family jokester known for eliciting the "Oh, Dad" groan. About 25 percent of Hallmark's Father's Day cards are in the humor category, compared with 15 percent of Mother's Day cards. Men also appreciate punch-in-the-arm, even immature, humor more than women do, companies say.

"The jokes aren't usually about dad taking you to the baseball game — that's not funny," said Ron Kanfi, president of NobleWorks. "It's hoarding the [TV] remote control or farting — that's a lot funnier than him taking you to the movies. . . . You try to give mom a fart joke for Mother's Day, it probably won't fly very well, but with dad you can.

"It's poking fun," Kanfi added. "It's not insulting him."

Tim Whyatt, an Australian cartoonist whose work appears on cards for American Greetings and NobleWorks, said dad-as-distant-goofball cartoons remain plenty popular, even as they become increasingly outdated. One of Whyatt's Father's Day cartoons shows three kids stuffed into a TV set facing a balding, shlumpy dad. One of the kids says to the mom, "It's the only way we can get him to listen to us."

In funny cards, Whyatt says, buyers want mothers portrayed "as the heroes" and fathers as "the butt of the joke." Perhaps, he said, it's because "humor likes to take potshots at the top dog," a role fathers still play in many families.

"It's really important to tap into what's going on in people's homes, or the cards won't sell," Whyatt said. He added: "I'm careful not to make dad into a complete idiot."

Katherine Cerami, 28, of Bethesda, Maryland, said she bought such Father's Day cards when she was younger because they made her laugh.

"If I saw something about the couch or the [TV] remote or putting your feet up and relaxing, I'd get it," Cerami said. Her father, she said, "sort of has his chair and the shows and sports he watches."

But this year, she opted for a more serious "From your loving daughter" card. Now that she's older and out of the house, Cerami said, she didn't want something so "stereotypical" or "cheesy," and she couldn't find another kind of funny card that fit.

Greeting card companies are listening. Hallmark officials say their offerings will increasingly show more involved dads, just as they have expanded over the years to include stepfathers, single dads and more active grandfathers.

Matt Gowen, editorial director for Hallmark's humorous Father's Day cards, said Hallmark focused this year on appealing to millennial dads. One card shows a dad with a goatee juggling a baby and two small kids as coffee cups and a baby bottle swirl around him. Inside, the message says, "Only multi-task in fun ways today." Another shows two brawny men arm-wrestling. One says, "Gah! You been weightlifting?" The other answers, "Nope. Kid-carrying."

"It's the idea," Gowen said, "that Dad is there, he's plugged in and is a big part of the baby's and child's upbringing."

Whyatt, the cartoonist, said he expects that greeting card companies soon will be requesting Father's Day cartoons showing more dads like himself. Working from home, Whyatt said, he's "very hands-on" with his two sons, ages 2 and 3.

"I've stuck with the old image because it's funnier," Whyatt said. "I'm sure there's a way to make the new image of fathers funny as well, but it would be a shame to lose making dad the butt of the joke. Even though we're all changing, hopefully we'll still be able to take a joke."