Monday, November 17, 2014

Bryson: King of the Dad Jokes

Roughly halfway through I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson makes an admittance of sorts, writing: “I have become my father … I enjoy making quips and comments on [license plates] … However, I am the only one who finds this an amusing way to pass a long journey” (134). This is a humble acknowledgement of what the reader has likely already discerned: Bryson’s humor is decidedly of the “dad” variety. Camped in nostalgia and littered with wisecracks, Bryson’s collection of short essays string together one dad joke after another, creating a voice that is cranky yet endearing and altogether reminiscent of the father archetype that ruled every Afterschool Special. 

In its most traditional Afterschool-Special sense, a “dad joke” can be defined as any quip with a delivery that prompts a sigh or eye roll accompanied by an exaggerated, “Oh, Dad!” from the intended audience (usually a son or daughter). Bryson delivers his fair share of jokes that qualify under this category. He replies to his wife’s offer to “join her in a bowl of muesli” by saying, “oh, but I don’t think we could both get in” and remarks on Pennsylvania’s license plate slogan (“You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania”) by asking, “then why doesn’t he call?” (265, 134).  

However, Bryson’s particular brand of humor is not limited to one-liners. Rather, I’m a Stranger Here Myself is an entire collection of essays critiquing features of American modernity using the standard, dad-approved, “Back-in-My-Day” formula. Bryson delights in faux-crankily reminiscing on his distant youth, in which motels were independently operated and cup holders appeared in appropriate quantities.

While an effective strategy for a charming editorial on the many absurdities that come with American excess, Bryson’s Everydad persona works to his discredit in his more serious political and social commentaries. Having spent a great number of pages chortling over exaggerated details and statistics taken out of context, the reader is left unprepared for Bryson’s abrupt change in tone when he takes on issues like immigration, exercise and government surveillance. The fatherly nostalgia is endearing; the alarmist perspective is slightly grating and tiresome. In balance, Bryson is best when he follows the guiding principle of the Afterschool Special and delivers his fatherly wisdom wrapped in comedy rather than as a sermon. 

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