Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Memes: the Cancer that is Killing Comedy

Let's take a moment to talk about memes and their place on the internet and in comedy.

First, what exactly is a meme?  Well, a meme is sort of an infectious phrase or notion.  To give a more demonstrative example, it's kind of like a movie reference.  Let's take a movie that everyone's seen.  Star Wars, for example.  If I were to tell someone "May the Force be with you," they would automatically recognize it as a line from Star Wars.  Even the hundred-odd people in the world who haven't seen a Star Wars movie would recognize it as a line from Star Wars.

Does this mean that the line is a meme?  Not exactly.  It's more of a pop culture reference (which many memes actually are).  It's hard to pin down the exact definition as used on the internet, but the best explanation I have is that it's somewhere between a reference, a fad, and an inside joke.

There's something that all three of those have in common.  Can you see it?

I'll get into what exactly it is in a bit.  First, I'm going to go into what exactly the place of memes in culture is.  Memes have been on the rise lately and have become an integral part of internet culture.  It started with just a few notable things, but really started to take off in about 2005--around the time that YouTube and Facebook emerged on the scene and shortly before Twitter.  From there, as the popularity of the internet and social media took off, memes became more and more numerous.  Now, memes have gone from inside jokes that the internet as a whole is in on to templates for responses or comments for almost any situation.

Now, I'll ask again: what do a reference, a fad, and an inside joke have in common?  The answer is that they are all someone else's work.  No one who uses a reference or inside joke or joins in on a fad is contributing anything original.

Now, none of these things are inherently bad.  A well-placed reference can be absolutely hilarious.  The thing is, they can be good, but only--and I'd like to stress this--only in moderation.  As an example, let's look at Seltzer and Friedberg.  Seltzer and Friedberg are a pair of directors who worked on the Scary Movie franchise and later broke off from that crew to create Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, and Vampires Suck.  These movies are known for confusing references with comedy.  There are jokes where the punchline is literally "hey, look at this character who's from this other movie!"  The character then disappears.  That is not a joke.  That is a cameo, and cameos are not inherently funny, and are certainly not funny (or even enjoyable) when they are thrown at you constantly.

As an aside, some of you may be saying "Hey, I thought Disaster Movie was hilarious!"  I hate to break this to you, but you are wrong and you have terrible taste in comedy.  This is not an opinion.  This is an objective evaluation.  Seltzer and Friedberg make undeniably terrible movies.  If you like them, it means that you are part of the Lowest Common Denominator.  It's a harsh criticism and you may be upset at me for making it, but I stand by that assessment for reasons that I'm going to be explaining below.

Let's look at these movies in context of Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is responsible for parodies such as Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Blazing Saddles.  I'll use the first as a reference point because it's the one I'm most familiar with.  Both the S&F movies and Mel Brooks movies feature a lot of nods to their source material, but the difference is in how frequent they are and how they're handled.  Spaceballs makes a lot of references to Star Wars, but most of them aren't really played to be particularly comedic.  Most of the references are woven in smoothly as opposed to blatantly shoved in our faces (such as Also Sprach Zarathustra playing during the "Megamaid" sequence as a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey or the ruins of the destroyed Megamaid referencing the infamous Statue of Liberty scene from Planet of the Apes). 

What's more, and this is the important part, there are jokes and plot events that are separate from the source material.  For example, the "combing the desert" scene, where they're literally taking giant combs to the desert, or the scene where the villains are watching the movie they're in to figure out where the heroes are.  Neither of those jokes are in any way references to any other material but independently funny jokes.  There are direct references, yes, and there are cameos (Mel Brooks plays a small role in each movie), but they're few and far-between so they come as pleasant surprises.

Compare this to S&F movies.  The plots are pieced together from other movies and strung together by a series of references.  In fact, you could argue that they do not, in fact, actually have plots.  They're just a bunch of loosely connected skits.  Unfortunately, these skits are also all just references, either to movies (often based solely on the trailers) or to pop culture.  As a result, it feels like they're just regurgitating other movies.  Instead of a unique movie with a lot of recognizable elements, we feel like we're watching a movie we've seen before, but it was far better the first time.

Why the discourse on Mel Brooks vs. Seltzer and Friedberg?  Well, because much like S&F simply regurgitate funny concepts onto the screen and end up with unfunny drivel that people have already seen, people simply regurgitate memes that everyone has already heard.

The thing with memes is this: they are originally funny.  That's why they become memes in the first place.  And some memes are just idiomatic.  "First world problems" and "that awkward moment" are, for example, just new figures of speech that have emerged because they describe concepts quickly.  But others are just slightly humorous or catchy phrases that other people have used.  There are also reaction images, which are images with or without a short accompanying text that portray an idea.

So how are memes killing comedy?  Simple: they're replacing natural wit with jokes.  Jokes can be funny, yes.  What's more, they're accessible.  That's why people sit around telling them.  Even a person lacking in any wit can retell a funny joke and get laughs, and they're very beneficial for children as they lay the foundation of humor and wit (which I personally believe are very beneficial to health, courtship, intellect, etc.).  They're good in that respect.  But a comedian cannot just stand up on stage and tell knock-knock jokes.  TV and movie characters cannot get laughs by asking how a raven is like a writing desk (well, the joke is actually a Lewis Carroll reference and is consequently an intellectual joke that will get laughs from people who get it, but I'm just giving examples here).  It's because once you've heard them once, they cease to be funny.  They're unoriginal and formulaic, and anyone can tell them.

Memes are like that.  They're jokes that anyone can tell and don't require any real wit.  All you need to do is to see a situation where a meme is appropriate, use the meme, ???, profit!  Sure, the meme can be played around with and executed well, but overall, it's just parroting someone else's joke.  Image macros aren't much better, as they're basically "here's a template for a joke, fill in the blanks."

The terrible thing is that this type of "comedy" is encouraged.  For a while, everyone is making memes, because they don't realize for a while that the joke is getting old, just because people are able to put spins on it long enough to prolong its shelf life.  However, it's still going to go stale.  Remember Chuck Norris?  This is Sparta?  All your base are belong to us?  The cake is a lie?  The Rickroll?  All jokes that, a few years ago, were everywhere.  Bring them up now and you'll get dirty looks.  Fortunately, we've started wising up.  Memes don't endure as long as they used to.  Rebecca Black/Friday, arrow to the knee, and the Harlem Shake all experienced rapid rises and decline because they got overexposed and even small variations couldn't save them.  All have fallen from grace and while they haven't retreated into obscurity yet, they're on their way.

So please: stop using memes.  If you want to be clever, be clever on your own instead of telling someone else's jokes.

And if you think I'm being unfair with this, well, there's really only one thing I can say to you....


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    1. Shut the fuck up Kid. you're like 14 years old and have no imagination whatsoever, so you parrot regurgitated internet garbage to everyone, and nobody except 13 year old kids think they're funny. Go watch more Leafy you disgusting, fat, degenerate slob fucking clown

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  4. Actaully this article was spot on. We just live with morons around us. It's like that scene from idiocracy where everyone went to the movie theater just to see an ass on the screen

  5. Guys, this post is like 3 years old now.

    Meme culture has changed so much in that time.

    I don't even know how much of this dumb post is still relevant. Don't take what I said too seriously.

  6. Actaully this article was spot on. We just live with morons around us. It's like that scene from idiocracy where everyone went to the movie theater just to see an ass on the screen

  7. Oh fuck off, you can't tell me what's funny and what not. "Terrible taste in comedy" go fuck yourself you fucking idiot. Memes have passed the point of no return...