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, created by Twitter user @SadTimesDrunk, appeared on Twitter in mid-July, where it circulated among various casual users before finding its way to my feed. The wiener is not a socialist icon; in fact, he is a breakdancing sausage from a Snapchat filter. His inclusion in a lineup of the U.S.S.R.’s patron saints doesn’t mean anything. Maybe nothing does.
I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. 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; where beloved children’s character Winnie the Pooh is depicted in a fan-made comic strip as a 9/11 truther, and grown men in a parody ad dance to shrill synth beats while eating Totino’s pizza rolls out of a tiny pink backpack. In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and 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.
When it comes to doubting the essential meaningfulness of the world, millennials have their reasons. 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 our parents. The moral structure they produced has been vastly loosened and replaced with a soft, untheorized tendency toward niceness — smarminess, really, as journalist Tom Scocca put it in 2013. 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 hopes of paying it off. In the meantime, they put off getting married, having kids, buying houses and so on. And waiting feels like — well, waiting. Millennials are not engaged at work (71 percent confessed this to Gallup), they have lost faith in our political system (only 19 percent say a military takeover is unacceptable), and many are lonely (57 percent reported such in a recent Match.com survey). Millennials aren’t strictly pessimistic by any means, but the occasional tussle with feelings of emptiness and despair seems de rigueur for my generation.
Yet the world is full of noise: Information is both more accessible (and perhaps more oppressively omnipresent) than ever and also less reliable; people select their own facts, and business-funded think tanks produce reports indistinguishable from hard data, except that they are not remotely true. Brands pose as friends on social media, especially to millennials, and if the line between real and artificial isn’t obliterated, it certainly seems to matter less than it once did.
Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized 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 wildly between horror and humor. They made their debut on Adult Swim, basic cable’s top programming among 18-to-34-year-olds, back in 2006 and are due to release a new season of their series “Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories ” this fall. 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, Tim and Eric compete in an increasingly deranged commercial to sell prices — fine European prices, premium prices, American-made prices, extremely small prices — no products, just prices. “It feels interesting to live in that surreal moment versus the horror of reality sometimes,” Wareheim told me, citing the prolonged, agonizingly uncomfortable shots and freakish close-ups in their show. There’s a sense of dull dread running through Heidecker and Wareheim’s work, but there’s 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 ad 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. Unlike the subcultural stoner comedy of yesteryear or the giddily absurd humor of classics like 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. In other words, distortion is a key attribute of this form, a warping effect that occurs as each instance of a meme grows more distant from its origin, sometimes losing any meaning whatsoever. Gallows humor about the late Cincinnati Zoo gorilla Harambe, for instance, has transformed into a whole genre of jokes only tenuously related to the original ape. For millennials, memes form the backdrop of life.
Adam Downer is a 26-year-old associate staff editor at Know Your Meme, an online encyclopedia of the form where the oldest staffer tops out at about age 32, Downer told me. He spends his days scouring the Net for memes, documenting their origins and, when possible, explaining to readers what they mean. Since 2008, Know Your Meme’s staff has indexed some 11,228 memes and adds new entries to its database every day. The strangest meme he ever worked on, 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, the Sesame Street character Elmo (wearing a “suck my a--” T-shirt) 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,” Downer told me. “I think it got popular because it was this giant emptiness of meaning. It was this giant race to the bottom of irony.”
Surrealism and its anarchic cousin dadaism are nothing new; neither is absurdism or weirdness in art. “The absurd,” Albert Camus wrote in 1942, “is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there. 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.
After all, the weird — even the exceedingly weird — doesn’t have to be purely distressing. Consider the long-running Old Spice deodorant commercials in which a handsome hunk on a boat presents “ladies” with an oyster containing “two tickets to that thing you love,” which quickly become diamonds as he teleports onto a horse. (“I’m on a horse,” he coolly informs the 54 million people who have watched the clip on YouTube.) In his book “The Weird and the Eerie,” author Mark Fisher points out that, in most cases, “the response to the apparition of a grotesque object will involve laughter as much as revulsion.” And the weird, Fisher goes on, “is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete.” By staking out a playful space to meditate on emotions that are usually upsetting (like the dread and anxiety of living in a thoroughly postmodern world), millennial surrealism intermixes relief with stress and levity with lunacy.
There may be no mixture better suited for getting through ordinary life. In July, researchers at Harvard University announced that they had managed to store a gif inside living bacteria by altering the bacterium’s DNA. For scientists, the strange little success heralded important achievements in gene modification. Twitter user Honkimus Maximus welcomed the news with a meme depicting the “Simpsons” character Mr. Burns googly-eyed and sedate, receiving an injection of memes directly into his veins. “S O O N,” Maximus captioned the image. It already feels like now.