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The comeback kids: Humor in the millennial age


In September, I introduced my parents to John Mulaney — a comedian, not a boyfriend. A former writer for Saturday Night Live, the author of two Netflix comedy specials and the co-writer of Broadway’s “Oh, Hello!” with Nick Kroll, Mulaney is no stranger to the stand-up scene. I’ve watched his work for years at this point, and I perpetually play his Netflix programs for ambience while doing assignments or for entertainment on idle days.

While watching the 2014 special “The Comeback Kid,” my father — who’s barely on the border of Baby Boomer-hood — found Mulaney’s riffs on the Catholic church and lawyer parents (being a lapsed Catholic and an antitrust lawyer himself) eminently funny. My response was, “Well, of course you did — it’s all based on defamiliarization, isn’t it?”

After a beat, my dad agreed, at which point my 17-year-old sister, eyes rolling, chimed in, “He’s not gonna say it, but I will: We have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Defamiliarization, defined by Wikipedia as “the artistic technique of presenting to audiences common things in an unfamiliar or strange way in order to enhance the perception of the familiar,” took traction in the United States as a literary element in the wake of the modernist movement of the 20th century. More plainly, it’s the practice of making strange that which is mundane; it coerces audiences into critiquing how they interpret normality.

This technique touches on particular profit with the millennial market; Elizabeth Bruenig at The Washington Post writes about why millennial humor is so weird, clarifying that, “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.”

Mulaney — perhaps unintentionally — highlights this. In his 2012 Netflix comedy special, “New in Town,” Mulaney resignedly remarks, “You know when you’re like, ‘This might as well happen. Adult life is already so goddamn weird.’” Of course, in context, Mulaney was describing a disastrous doctor’s appointment that had been scheduled under false pretenses, but his point is still prescient: That great gulf between teenager-hood and the charade of “adulting” crumbles as the construct of “adulthood” becomes less accepted as fact. The popular perception that aspects of American adulthood are axiomatic is decomposing; “emerging adulthood” is now a life stage, no one is a homeowner at 22 anymore, and maturity is no longer a measure of age (if it ever was).

As Randall Colburn of the A.V. Club succinctly says, “When the narratives [the new generation] were told growing up — college matters, hard work pays off, the good guys win – turned out to be bullshit, the best way to find humor in such foundational failures was to embrace the illogical head-on.”

This Kafkaesque commentary is especially epitomized in Vine, the online platform in which users can create quick, six-second clips. Vine is a momentary medium, defined by the fact that it is fleeting, and thus becomes absurdist because it makes meaning out of nothing.

Drenched in irony and self-deprecation, popular Vines present a familiar premise — one in which the target audience is already deeply disillusioned — and satirize it, both acknowledging and directly addressing the absurdity of (as Mulaney writes) the “adult life” into which we have been indoctrinated. Colburn’s article argues that, “Millennials live in an America that looks nothing like the one their parents grew up in. Morally, economically and technologically — this is a fundamentally different place.” The collective cultural critique of our parents’ status quo manifests in a universal anger when that status quo rings false, and the media through which we express that is consequently laced with aimlessness, existentialism, dissatisfaction and rebellion. In fact, it’s descended from the dadaist humor of post-World War I Europe, in which “artists … rejected the logic, reason and aestheticism of modern capitalist society [and instead] express[ed] nonsense, irrationality and anti-bourgeois protest” (according to Wikipedia); Vine distills the deep disappointment of youth culture into strange, six-second snippets. These pieces then synthesize minimalism and absurdism into a fiercely fascinating amalgam of cultural touchstones and millennial modernization.

Methodological and contextual insanity in particular mingle in Vines like Vine user ben taylor’s, “myrrh…der.” In the video, the actor on screen (already toying with minimalism and modernism by boasting a blue hoodie and filming in a moving vehicle) alternates between the roles of the Three Wise Men and a somehow simultaneously infant and adult Jesus. One of the Wise Men — masked — genuflects and murmurs, “I have brought you myrrh,” after which he removes his mask and delivers the punchline, “Myrrh-DUR,” leaving Jesus gasping, “Judas, no!” before the scene unexpectedly ends. (Vines often cease suddenly, even mid-sentence or mid-frame, as a result of both the limited timeframe of the medium and an intentional lack of resolution — a fact which furthers the Vine’s wit.)

Not only does this Vine use the scenery of the car’s front seat in place of Biblical backdrops, but it also completely repudiates the tedium of a timeline; “myrrh…der” offers audiences only basal recognition of the characters and the situational setting, and yet the levity stems from the simultaneous acquaintance with content and unfamiliarity of form.

And this desperate, heady humor especially emerges in college, during which students are scrambling to satisfy both internal and external expectations. The national normalization of college craziness invalidates student struggles, so students strike back by twisting understandable premises to put emphasis on the ridiculousness of the everyday. Tumblr user bypassedthecompressor’s two-minute compilation of college-oriented Vines encompasses stories in which a student nonchalantly notes, “My resting heart rate registers as a panic attack”; a student steals the basket — and only the basket, not the contents — of free condoms in a dorm; a cat plays a student who’s panicking over a paper; faux-“Friends” credits feature “Me” and “Also Me” in a show titled, “Giving Up”; a toddler demands coffee; and someone says the line, “If the Freshman 15 means getting whipped by the Devil 15 times, then yeah, I’ve got the Freshman 15.”

But despite the thread of dread defining these Vines — and the air of accepted suffering — Vine is used as a tool of community, of kids coming back from the brink of isolation and hopelessness. In Bruenig’s words, “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.” Vines can thus be both meaningless and meaningful; jokes that thrive on thinly veiled sadness can create a sense of solidarity among those who suffer from that sadness. Nothing is sacred, but perhaps nothing has to be, either.

(For curious readers, I recommend Vine user ayitspno and any Vine compilation under the sun.)


Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ 

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