The Funniest Mother-in-Law Jokes Ever Told

Even the Pope couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a shot at her
The Funniest Mother-in-Law Jokes Ever Told

I turned over this rock so you don’t have to. The bad news is: it starts with a few centuries of excruciating sexism. The good news is: it ends with Tig Notaro!

The OGs

Dudes have had beef with their wive’s mothers since the beginning of time. It’s an ageless, universal friction that spans every culture and continent. Here are a few of the oldest:

  • An old Armenian proverb says “Mothers-in-law should be blind in one eye and deaf in one ear.” I have no clue what this means, other than a cheeky suggestion that she should see no evil, hear no evil, and therefore, hopefully speak no evil.
  • A Korean proverb says, “Toilets are like mothers in law. The farther away, the better.” Harsh, but straight to the point.
  • Possibly the oldest recorded mother-in-law joke comes from first-century Roman poet Juvenal: “Give up all hope of peace as long as your mother-in-law is still alive.” Look, I’m no Chris Hardwick, but that one doesn’t strike me as super funny? It was published in his poetry collection Satire VI, though, so what do I know?

Fast-Forward to Modern-Day Italy

Assuming Juvenal’s contemporaries thought he absolutely ate with that line about giving up all hope of peace, it’s safe to say that Rome has a long, proud history of dunking on wizened older women. I wonder what knee-slappers they’ve developed in the intervening millennia!

One of the most recent mother-in-law jokes, and certainly one of the most high-profile of all time, came from none other than Pope Francis in 2022. Are you ready? You’re gonna love this one. It’s so good. I promise I’m not overhyping it. Okay, here it goes: “Families, we quarrel. Sometimes plates can fly. I won’t speak about mother-in-laws.”

His larger point was that mothers-in-law should be respected, not regarded in a “pejorative way” or as “the devil.” It’s mainly his delivery that needs some work. Hopefully the 100 comedians who recently visited the Vatican helped him polish up his sexist and homophobic materia.

The 20th-Century British Resurgence

This joke format made a comeback in the middle of the 20th century. Post-World War II housing shortages forced multiple generations to live under one roof, causing tensions to rise and zingers to fly. The Brits in particular adopted the mother-in-law joke as a part of the national identity, producing several champions of the genre. Les Dawson had a few zingers of note:

  • “My mother-in-law said, ‘One day I will dance on your grave.’ I said, ‘I hope you do. I will be buried at sea.’”
  • “My mother-in-law has come round to our house at Christmas seven years running. This year we're having a change. We're going to let her in.”
  • “I took my mother-in-law to Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, and one of the attendants said: ‘Keep her moving sir, we’re stock-taking.’”

So this is technically sexism and misogyny in action, but at the end of the day, these are harmless jokes, right? Unfortunately, history and data paint a less benign picture. It’s mostly men telling these jokes, yet studies have shown that more daughters-in-law (33 percent) than sons-in-law (15 percent) report negative interactions with their spouse’s mother. It seems to boil down to a patriarchal assumption that a young man can do no wrong, while a young woman can’t do anything right.

The real-world impact of a well-meaning elder caretaker meddling in childrearing is stark. A study of infant mortality in 18th- and 19th-century Germany found that, when the mother’s mother was in the picture, a child was 79 percent more likely to survive. When the father’s mother was in the picture, a child was 50 percent more likely to die.

So, What Happens When Women Take This Joke Format Back?

In one prominent case, a comedian was sued by her in-laws.

Sunda Croonquist is a New Jersey-born, L.A.-trained comedian who’s half-Black, half-Swedish, born Roman Catholic and married into a Jewish family. Some of her material, naturally, revolved around the culture shock she experience or inflicted when she joined her husband’s family:

  • As her mother-in-law: “Okay, now that we know you’re having a little girl I want to know what you’re naming that little tchotchke. Now, we don’t want a name that’s difficult to pronounce like Shaniqua. We’re thinking a name short but delicious. Like Hadassah or Goldie.”
  • “I walk in, I say, ‘Thank you so much for having me here, Ruthie.’ She says, ‘The pleasure’s all mine, have a seat.’” Then, as her mother-in-law: “Harriet, put my pocketbook away.”

It all seemed to be in good fun, but out of the blue, her in-laws argued that she doxed them with a certain piece of promotional material for an upcoming show, and sued her in 2009. Interestingly, their lawsuit is what made their names, locations and whole deal extremely public. More interestingly still, Croonquist’s husband’s law firm represented her, and a court ultimately ruled in her favor.

The Modern Spin: Mothers-in-Law Are Nice, Actually!

You may have noticed that mother-in-law jokes aren’t all that common these days. It’s not that comedians have decided to lay off of women, and it’s certainly not that “cancel culture has come for it.” 

What’s changed since the mid-20th century is that families are increasingly venturing out of their parental homesteads again. Grandparental childcare has become more structured, more elective and more rewarding for both parties. We seem to like mothers-in-law now, and you can see it in our comedy.

One of the most popular quotes from I Think You Should Leave revolves around the absurdity of hating your mother-in-law:

“You probably love your mother-in-law.”
“I actually do.”
“Oh my god! He admit it!”

English comedian John Thomson has this cheeky non-joke: “My mother-in-law — lovely woman, helped us buy our house.”

Maybe the best example, though, is a performance piece by Tig Notaro. She has an extremely healthy relationship with her mother-in-law, Carol, who once cracked herself up beyond the point of comprehensibility while trying to tell a joke. 

Before even hearing the punchline, Notaro invited her to perform it at one of her shows. Here’s how it went: “I got this great idea. I thought, this is a very funny joke. First, I have to explain, though. It’s kind of like a play on words. Well, (Notaro’s wife) Stephanie said, it’s like that Lou Gehrig joke, where it’s, ‘Gee, what are the odds of Lou Gehrig getting Lou Gehrig’s disease?’ It’s that kind of joke. So I’m driving along and it came to me about — the only problem is it’s about somebody that’s not really in the news — well, never really in the news anymore. Okay, so the joke is about Paris Hilton. See what I mean? Like, Paris Hilton’s dead now. So yeah, it’s about Paris Hilton. And so this is the joke. Who would name their kid… (several seconds of uncontrollable laughter) Who would name their kid after a hotel chain?”

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