Why is mil­len­nial hu­mor so weird?

The Post’s Eliz­a­beth Bru­enig mines sur­real In­ter­net memes for mean­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @ebru­enig Eliz­a­beth Bru­enig is an as­sis­tant ed­i­tor for Out­look and PostEvery­thing at The Wash­ing­ton Post.

In a sepia-toned por­trait that looks like a dark relic of the Soviet era, five fig­ures stand frown­ing in pro­file: Karl Marx, Friedrich En­gels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and fi­nally a com­puter-gen­er­ated hot dog wear­ing green head­phones. The im­age ap­peared on Twit­ter in mid-July, where it cir­cu­lated among var­i­ous ca­sual users be­fore find­ing its way to my feed. The wiener is not a so­cial­ist icon; in fact, he is a break­danc­ing sausage from a Snapchat fil­ter. His in­clu­sion in a lineup of the U.S.S.R.’s pa­tron saints doesn’t mean any­thing. Maybe noth­ing does.

I am not a ni­hilist, but a mood of grim, jolly ab­sur­dism comes over me of­ten, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. To visit mil­len­nial com­edy, ad­ver­tis­ing and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and sud­denly van­ish; where loops of self-ref­er­en­tial quips warp and dis­tort with each it­er­a­tion, tweaked by an­other user em­bel­lish­ing on some­one else’s joke, un­til noth­ing co­her­ent is left; where beloved chil­dren’s char­ac­ter Win­nie the Pooh is de­picted in a fan-made comic strip as a 9/11 truther, and grown men in a par­ody ad dance to shrill synth beats while eat­ing Totino’s pizza rolls out of a tiny pink

back­pack. In this weird world of the sur­real and bizarre, hor­ror min­gles with hu­mor, and young peo­ple have space to play with emo­tions that seem more and more to pro­ceed from or­di­nary life — the creep­ing sus­pi­cion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

When it comes to doubt­ing the essen­tial mean­ing­ful­ness of the world, mil­len­ni­als have their rea­sons. Stud­ies show that tra­di­tional sources of mean­ing, such as reli­gion and fam­ily for­ma­tion, are less rel­e­vant to the lives of young peo­ple than they were to our par­ents. The moral struc­ture they pro­duced has been vastly loos­ened and re­placed with a soft, un­the­o­rized ten­dency to­ward nice­ness — smarmi­ness, re­ally, as jour­nal­ist Tom Scocca put it in 2013. Long-last­ing ca­reers seem out of reach; mil­len­ni­als are told to go to col­lege so they can make money, but mostly they just amass debt and then job-hop in hopes of pay­ing it off. In the mean­time, they put off get­ting mar­ried, hav­ing kids, buy­ing houses and so on. And wait­ing feels like — well, wait­ing. Mil­len­ni­als are not en­gaged at work (71 per­cent con­fessed this to Gallup), they have lost faith in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem (only 19 per­cent say a mil­i­tary takeover is un­ac­cept­able), and many are lonely (57 per­cent re­ported such in a re­cent Match.com sur­vey). Mil­len­ni­als aren’t strictly pes­simistic by any means, but the oc­ca­sional tus­sle with feel­ings of empti­ness and de­spair seems de rigueur for my gen­er­a­tion.

Yet the world is full of noise: In­for­ma­tion is both more ac­ces­si­ble (and per­haps more op-

Co­me­di­ans Tim Hei­decker and Eric Ware­heim per­form in Cal­i­for­nia in 2013. Like a lot of mil­len­nial com­edy, their TV shows and skits blend hor­ror and hu­mor. “It feels in­ter­est­ing to live in that sur­real mo­ment ver­sus the hor­ror of re­al­ity some­times,” Ware­heim says. The duo’s work, he adds, “is an ex­pres­sion of that fear and anx­i­ety.”

pres­sively om­nipresent) than ever and also less re­li­able; peo­ple se­lect their own facts, and busi­ness-funded think tanks pro­duce re­ports in­dis­tin­guish­able from hard data, ex­cept that they are not re­motely true. Brands pose as friends on so­cial me­dia, es­pe­cially to mil­len­ni­als, and if the line be­tween real and ar­ti­fi­cial isn’t oblit­er­ated, it cer­tainly seems to mat­ter less than it once did.

Amid th­ese trends, a par­tic­u­lar style of ex­pres­sion has spread among young peo­ple. Rather than try­ing to re­store mean­ing and sense where they’ve gone miss­ing, the style aims to play with the moods and emo­tions of an il­leg­i­ble world. In a way, it’s a dig­i­tal up­date to the sur­real and ab­surd gen­res of art and lit­er­a­ture that char­ac­ter­ized the tu­mul­tuous early 20th cen­tury.

Tim Hei­decker and Eric Ware­heim are a pair of co­me­di­ans whose work ex­ists in the zone of the weird and grotesque, veer­ing wildly be­tween hor­ror and hu­mor. They made their de­but on Adult Swim, ba­sic ca­ble’s top pro­gram­ming among 18-to-34-year-olds, back in 2006 and are due to re­lease a new sea­son of their se­ries “Tim & Eric’s Bed­time Sto­ries” this fall. Their skits run the gamut from slightly to ex­tremely sur­real, with low-fi, retro graph­ics; dis­torted au­dio; and dis­jointed edit­ing adding to the eerie feel. In one sketch, Tim and Eric com­pete in an in­creas­ingly de­ranged com­mer­cial to sell prices — fine Euro­pean prices, pre­mium prices, Amer­i­can-made prices, ex­tremely small prices — no prod­ucts, just prices. “It feels in­ter­est­ing to live in that sur­real mo­ment ver­sus the hor­ror of re­al­ity some­times,” Ware­heim told me, cit­ing the pro­longed, ag­o­niz­ingly un­com­fort­able shots and freak­ish close-ups in their show. There’s a sense of dull dread run­ning through Hei­decker and Ware­heim’s work, but there’s also re­lief, an in­vi­ta­tion to laugh at the awk­ward and ab­surd. “It’s an ex­pres­sion of that fear and anx­i­ety,” Ware­heim said, re­fer­ring to one of their many skits fo­cused on the ten­sion of daily life. “But I just feel like it’s fun to watch our show, and you are trans­ported to an­other di­men­sion of sim­i­lar things, but it’s not real, so you’re just like ‘ahh’ . . . it’s a pleas­ant sur­real world.”

Other shows, such as Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty” and Net­flix’s “BoJack Horse­man,” fol­low in this vein, imag­in­ing, as New Yorker critic Emily Nuss­baum put it, “bleak­ness and joy” in a “teem­ing, sur­real al­ter­na­tive uni­verse.” Ad­ver­tis­ing aimed at young peo­ple, too, ex­hibits the trend. Con­sider a 2012 candy ad in which two teenagers stand ner­vously un­der the bleach­ers; one picks “Skit­tles pox” off the other’s pasty skin, then pops them in her mouth. Un­like the sub­cul­tural stoner com­edy of yes­ter­year or the gid­dily ab­surd hu­mor of clas­sics like Monty Python, this breed of mil­len­nial sur­re­al­ism is both main­stream and tan­gi­bly dark — it aims for wide swaths of young peo­ple, lean­ing in to feel­ings of worry, fail­ure and dread.

Mean­while, on­line cul­ture al­lows more peo­ple to get in on the ac­tion, pro­duc­ing their own con­tri­bu­tions to the mean­ing­less, loopy, some­times-sin­is­ter whirling gyre of the mo­ment in the form of memes. In the sim­plest terms, memes are any pieces of cul­tural in­for­ma­tion that spread among groups by im­i­ta­tion, chang­ing bit by bit along the way. In other words, dis­tor­tion is a key at­tribute of this form, a warp­ing ef­fect that oc­curs as each in­stance of a meme grows more dis­tant from its ori­gin, some­times los­ing any mean­ing what­so­ever. Gal­lows hu­mor about the late Cincin­nati Zoo go­rilla Harambe, for in­stance, has trans­formed into a whole genre of jokes only ten­u­ously re­lated to the orig­i­nal ape. For mil­len­ni­als, memes form the back­drop of life.

Adam Downer is a 26-year-old as­so­ciate staff ed­i­tor at Know Your Meme, an on­line en­cy­clo­pe­dia of the form where the old­est staffer tops out at about age 32, Downer told me. He spends his days scour­ing the Net for memes, doc­u­ment­ing their ori­gins and, when pos­si­ble, ex­plain­ing to read­ers what they mean. Since 2008, Know Your Meme’s staff has in­dexed some 11,228 memes and adds new en­tries to its data­base ev­ery day. The strangest meme he ever worked on, Downer says, was a bizarre mind-virus called “Hey Beter.” The meme con­sists of four pan­els, the first in­clud­ing the phrase “Hey Beter,” a riff on “Hey Pe­ter,” re­fer­ring to the main char­ac­ter of the com­edy car­toon se­ries “Fam­ily Guy.” What comes next seems to make even less sense: In one it­er­a­tion, the Se­same Street char­ac­ter Elmo (wear­ing a “suck my a--” T-shirt) calls out to Pe­ter, then asks him to spell “whomst’ve,” then blasts him with blue lasers. In the fi­nal panel, read­ers are ad­vised to “fol­low for a free iphone 5.” (There is no prize.) “That one was in­ex­pli­ca­bly pop­u­lar,” Downer told me. “I think it got pop­u­lar be­cause it was this gi­ant empti­ness of mean­ing. It was this gi­ant race to the bot­tom of irony.”

Sur­re­al­ism and its an­ar­chic cousin dadaism are noth­ing new; nei­ther is ab­sur­dism or weird­ness in art. “The ab­surd,” Al­bert Ca­mus wrote in 1942, “is born of this con­fronta­tion be­tween the hu­man need [for hap­pi­ness and rea­son] and the un­rea­son­able si­lence of the world.” Ab­sur­dity is the com­pul­sion to go look­ing for mean­ing that sim­ply isn’t there. To­day’s sur­re­al­ism draws as­pects of all of th­ese threads to­gether with hu­mor, cre­at­ing an aes­thetic world where (in com­mon In­ter­net par­lance) “lol, noth­ing mat­ters,” but things may turn out all right any­way.

Af­ter all, the weird — even the ex­ceed­ingly weird — doesn’t have to be purely dis­tress­ing. Con­sider the long-run­ning Old Spice de­odor­ant com­mer­cials in which a hand­some hunk on a boat presents “ladies” with an oys­ter con­tain­ing “two tick­ets to that thing you love,” which quickly be­come di­a­monds as he tele­ports onto a horse. (“I’m on a horse,” he coolly in­forms the 54 mil­lion peo­ple who have watched the clip on YouTube.) In his book “The Weird and the Eerie,” au­thor Mark Fisher points out that, in most cases, “the re­sponse to the ap­pari­tion of a grotesque ob­ject will in­volve laugh­ter as much as re­vul­sion.” And the weird, Fisher goes on, “is a sig­nal that the con­cepts and frame­works which we have pre­vi­ously em­ployed are now ob­so­lete.” By stak­ing out a play­ful space to med­i­tate on emo­tions that are usu­ally up­set­ting (like the dread and anx­i­ety of liv­ing in a thor­oughly post­mod­ern world), mil­len­nial sur­re­al­ism in­ter­mixes re­lief with stress and lev­ity with lu­nacy.

There may be no mix­ture bet­ter suited for get­ting through or­di­nary life. In July, re­searchers at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity an­nounced that they had man­aged to store a gif in­side liv­ing bac­te­ria by al­ter­ing the bac­terium’s DNA. For sci­en­tists, the strange lit­tle suc­cess her­alded im­por­tant achieve­ments in gene mod­i­fi­ca­tion. Twit­ter user Honkimus Max­imus wel­comed the news with a meme de­pict­ing the “Simp­sons” char­ac­ter Mr. Burns goo­gly-eyed and se­date, re­ceiv­ing an in­jec­tion of memes di­rectly into his veins .“SOON ,” Maxim us cap­tioned the im­age. It al­ready feels like now.


What does this tweet mean? Prob­a­bly noth­ing.


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