Why is millennial humour so weird?

WASHINGTON • 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 the middle of last month. The wiener is not a socialist icon. In fact, he is a breakdancing sausage from a Snapchat filter. His inclusion in a line-up of the Soviet Union's patron saints does not mean anything. Maybe nothing does.

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.

In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, 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 does not make sense.

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 their parents.

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 the hopes of paying it off. In the meantime, they put off getting married, having kids, buying houses and so on.

Millennials are not engaged at work (71 per cent confessed this to Gallup), they have lost faith in the political system (only 19 per cent say a military takeover is unacceptable) and many are lonely (57 per cent reported such in a recent Match.com survey).

Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it is a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterised 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 between horror and humour. They made their debut on Adult Swim, basic cable's top programming among 18- to 34-year-olds, in 2006 and are due to release a new season of their series Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories later this year.

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, they compete in an increasingly deranged commercial to sell prices - fine European prices, premium prices, American-made prices, extremely small prices - no products, just prices.

There is a sense of dull dread running through Heidecker and Wareheim's work, but there is 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 advertisement 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.

Unlikethe giddily absurd humour of classics such as 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.

Mr Adam Downer is a 26-year-old associate staff editor at Know Your Meme, an online encyclopaedia of the form where the oldest staffer is about 32, he said. He spends his days scouring the Internet for memes, documenting their origins and, when possible, explaining to readers what they mean.

Since 2008, Know Your Meme's staff has indexed about 11,228 memes and adds new entries to its database every day.

The strangest meme he ever worked on, Mr 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, Sesame Street character Elmo 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," Mr Downer said. "I think it got popular because it was this giant emptiness of meaning. It was this giant race to the bottom of irony."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Why is millennial humour so weird?'. Print Edition | Subscribe