sad elephant

We remain, I think, divided on the question of what makes the best village idiot. Is it someone who is doing this on purpose — organizing the pratfalls so he doesn’t hurt himself, leading us on for the laugh? Or is it someone who knows that we’re laughing but doesn’t quite know why, someone who, glad for the attention, repeats the gesture or the phrase that made us snicker?

On the Internet, we seem to show a fairly clear preference for the latter.

Make a video that’s ridiculous on purpose, and there’s a ceiling to your popularity. Make a video that’s ridiculous by accident, and — who knows where it will stop. Make a video that seems to be a little bit of both, and you’ve got “Gangnam Style.”

This is why the news about Horse_ebooks has been so devastating.

I’ll always remember where I was when I heard about Horse_ebooks, which I thought was an inadvertently brilliant algorithm generating accidental Twitter bursts of poetry and wisdom. Turned out it was performance art, from a Buzzfeed employee. Nothing makes your heart sink like news that what you thought was monkeys generating Shakespeare was performance art. There was someone inside the machine. It wasn’t magic after all.

On the Internet, when you discover that someone knows what he or she is doing, it often feels like a betrayal. We don’t want ridiculous performances. We want ridiculous people.

This is, in many ways, a cruel preference.

Our love of inadvertent idiocy has created a strange new class of celebrity — people America considers funny but who may or may not realize why. Think filmmaker Tommy Wiseau on one end of the spectrum, who tours the country with “The Room,” a film he describes as “a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams” that is so egregiously and laughably bad it has spawned a cult. Wiseau, impenetrable behind dark glasses, seems both utterly at ease with his new celebrity and completely disconnected from most versions of what is conventionally termed reality. His efforts to reproduce his success with short films like “The House That Drips Blood on Alex” have been total washes — his genius lay in the fact that he did not realize he was making a comedy.

Along the spectrum are such figures as Antoine Dodson and Sweet Brown, both in the uncomfortable gray area between being laughed at and with, and then finally on the far end you hit Richard Simmons, who looks like a gigantic idiot but seems to know exactly why.

Usually we only interact with the people behind our cherished moments of absurdity through the one-way mirror of the much-watched video or the oft-quoted Twitter. When you’re not in the room, you can laugh AT people. That’s what the Internet is for, viewed a certain way: laughing about people who are not in the room. This brings a certain relief. It used to be that if you wanted to laugh at that ridiculous man in your office who sweats heavily and giggles to himself, you had to wait for someone to reproduce him as a character on the screen or on the stage. Now you just put him on YouTube, where the line between person and caricature feels blurrier. He doesn’t know you’re laughing. He just knows you’re watching. Isn’t that the whole point — being watched? Our ancestors had to settle for characters; we get real, living, breathing caricatures.

There are people who, we have collectively agreed, are without interiors – the pundits who make a living saying awful things for the attention. You can say what you want about them and they will not be hurt, because it’s an act. What you criticize is a performance, not a person. Then there are the people who seem to be doing this by accident.

Our fascination with them is of a piece with the ironic tendency of hipsterdom. We do this ironically and we know we look silly. You did it on purpose and thought you looked good. There is an infinite gap between us, even though we are wearing the same hat and doing the same dance. Hipsterdom, which can be summed up in the phrase, “no, no, I KNOW I look ridiculous,” makes for strange bedfellows.

Recently I signed up for a Prancercise class with Joanna Rohrback, whose YouTube video of her innovative new form of exercise went viral and spawned a wide range of parodies, some kinder than others.

It was almost a disappointment to find a person inside the meme, a real human who thought she had a grand new exercise system and who had been hurt by the crueler parodies. Rohrback seemed simultaneously delighted by her newfound celebrity, with appearances on Tosh.0 and in a pistachios commercial, and disappointed by the news that none of the people in my class of a dozen were there because they were sincerely interested in her form of exercise. The whole experience was strange — like hipster bear-baiting. One of my classmates videotaped the majority of the session on her phone. Maybe it’s already on YouTube. When you view it again through the telescoping lens of the Internet, the footage might be amusing. Only when you’re in the room does it feel wrong.

Then again, who’s the more foolish — the “Prancercise Lady,” or the hipsters who paid good money to jog in circles like horses, waving their arms, smothering their giggles?

What a strange standard we’ve created.

One of the animating questions of the Internet age (and, I suppose, all ages, when you really get down to it) is: Is there someone in there? Are you doing that on purpose? Do you know how ridiculous you look?

I don’t know which answer is worse: yes or no. We will settle for the entirely conscious performance and for the person who is doing it by accident yet knows, somehow, that he looks foolish. But our ideal is the person who is simultaneously doing this by accident and insensitive to mockery. That’s why the horse_eBooks seemed so perfect — artful artlessness. Randomized genius. And you could laugh to your heart’s content without feeling cruel. Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising that this turned out to be impossible.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".