I went to college in the mid-aughts, well before pop culture had evolved anything like the meme economy we know and love today. Facebook was brand-new (all you really did there was list your favorite bands, hoping that someone would be impressed) and so was YouTube, whose handful of viral videos were mainly shared in person, not as links. Reddit, Twitter and Tumblr, three juggernauts of today’s online humor, had yet to dominate; instead we familiarized ourselves with the Flash animations of Homestar Runner, the soundboards of eBaum’s World and shock content like 2 Girls 1 Cup.
And if we needed a lingua franca — jokey reference points one could safely assume were familiar to a broad subset of the age cohort — movie and TV quotes did the trick.
While it’s easy for a person of my age to remember this bygone era, it’s rather difficult to reconstruct why we might have found a friend reciting lines from Old School (“Earmuffs!”) or Happy Gilmore (“You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?”) so hilarious. I know it took a mixture of confidence and talent to truly pull it off; nothing was more awkward than sitting there as a guy mixed up his allusions or botched the cadence of an easy one. The people who excelled in this format were often gifted impressionists, like my high school buddy Mike, who nailed a majority of voices heard on The Simpsons and had virtually all the best scenes memorized, which came in handy if we missed that night’s reruns or wanted to discuss an episode that hadn’t aired in a while.
In other cases, a dude’s very obsession with a comedy would sell his proclivity to quote it. This was how it was with Matthew, a dear, drunken college friend who became captain of the golf team and knew the movie Caddyshack — filmed in his native Chicago, no less — by heart. I’d seen the Murray-Chase-Dangerfield country club romp maybe twice before meeting Matthew, but he was adamant that I familiarize myself further, so that in the midst of a beer pong night, he could communicate by way of its characters. The villain, Judge Smails, for threats and bombast: “I’ve sent kids younger than you to the gas chamber!” or “Gambling is illegal at Bushwood, sir, and I never slice.” Maggie, the Irish girlfriend, for heavily accented indignation: “Tanks for nuttin’!” Rodney Dangerfield, of course, for provocation: “Wanna make $14 the hard way?”
It’s astonishing, when you pause to consider it, how entertainment shifted in tune with changing modes of consumption and reminiscence. The big laugh riots from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s often centered around a mega-popular comedian or comic duo — your Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell, Pryor-Wilder and Farley-Spade — in a sharply defined premise, with clear-cut gags.
Then came the Judd Apatow cinematic universe, with its shaggy scripts and rampant improvisational energy. While a few TV sitcoms retained a high-quotability polish (30 Rock gave the screwball one-liners of yesteryear a well-deserved renaissance), others avoided the lure of catchphrases in pursuit of naturalistic dialogue. Done well, this material makes us giggle while lending a note of plausibility to the ridiculous events unfolding on-screen. Too frequently, though, it ossifies into a stratum of hacky anti-writing that has flattened a genre with its rote sameiness. You can’t quote it because, well, nobody is actually saying anything.
What happened over the last 15 years? We embraced lots of interrelated tech: smartphones, social media, streaming platforms. The rambling, self-conscious style lampooned by comedian and writer Nicole Silverberg in the clip above is useful for capturing relevant moods: millennial anxiety, distraction and digression, the interruptive cross-currents of web-mediated chatter. It’s exceedingly hard for visual entertainment to represent the nuances of texting in a way that feels dynamic to watch, so actual speech absorbs those rhythms. For quite the same reason, these mumblecore idioms lack the singular voice and delivery that define, say, your favorite exchange from Wayne’s World. The internet promised exponential divergence but congealed into another monoculture.
Memes occupy a weird middle ground between the two stages of comedy. On the one hand, they too can lapse into inarticulate formula; their spread is contingent upon a few tastemakers and vast hordes of wannabe comics overeager to ride its wave. The worst meme syntax quickly resembles the yammering of a made-for-Netflix misfire. At the same time, other memes thrive in a state of mutation, or gain strength by sheer repetition — not unlike our most beloved film and TV riffs. We cringe at PEN15’s Maya Ishii-Peters acting out Ace Ventura for her classmates, but is it so different from DMing your crush a hilarious meme, only to have them reply, “I saw that”? Either way, we are trying to repackage our appreciation of someone else’s humor as a joke in itself.
I suppose I take comfort in seeing that while the matter and means of this ritual have changed, the meaning really hasn’t: We’ll always want to commune over things that give us cause to laugh together, revisiting them as dear acquaintances. It’s evident in a remark as simple as “Bye, Felicia,” which completed the transition from Friday reference to full-blown meme over some two decades — you no longer need to have seen the movie to understand its import. I wonder if our persistent memory of these cultural artifacts may survive whatever apocalypse lies in store, as with Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a stage production that imagines the bedraggled survivors of a great catastrophe preserving the essence of The Simpsons via the oral tradition.
Was lounging around a dorm common room and rehashing Anchorman an intellectual exercise? Hell, it was barely proof of consciousness. But I know this: It was never lonely.