I’m hesitant to go forth with this because it’s easy to pick on memes. They’re popular for a start and decrying anything which most people like is a regular pastime of the critically inclined. Which is really just a polite way of saying, ‘tossers’. Just look at Friends – at its best this sitcom about six clearly defined caricatures was close to perfect and there’s a reason networks have tried to mimic its style ever since. Despite that, it has to be one of the most decried sitcoms out there, lambasted for its formulaic nature, predictable japes and self-satisfaction. There are of course valid criticisms of the show, but it’s considerably rarer to hear them detailed as opposed to something akin to, ‘Friends? It’s shit.’
The show isn’t alone. Look to comedy in the UK and BBC 3’s most successful show, Russell Howard’s Good News is good-natured and often funny. Never does it push the boundaries however, and as one critic put it, Howard himself is ‘a child’s caricature of a comedian.’ Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show were both hugely successful but both shows relied on formulae for laughs, identified best by their over-reliance on catchphrases. As a remedy to shows like this we had The Office and Extras, both of which were clever and amusing. Quickly it became de rigeur in vox pop opinions to dislike Ricky Gervais.
My sympathies go out to him (as much as they can to any happily married, successful international comedian, writer and actor) because Gervais’s comedy seems primarily based around the idea of being different without resorting to the heights of ridicule you can find in basements and flats throughout Edinburgh once a year. There’s no laughter track, no repeatable one-liners and yet there are endlessly quotable characters. It’s original, clever and funny. This is where my dislike of memes links in.
It’s not that they aren’t funny and I suppose all of them were original once. On many occasions I’ve laughed out loud when one has popped up in my Facebook feed and on rare occasion they can be scathingly witty. More often however, they’re uniform, unoriginal and vanilla. Lest it be suggested I’m missing the point of course they wouldn’t be memes if there weren’t a constant running throughout but our reliance on this surely can’t be doing any good to our collective wit.
Most of us have an extraordinarily quick friend, or at the least we’ve met someone like this. The type of person who regularly fires off zinging replies to innocuous statements making everyone round the table laugh. The friend who can find humour in the darkest of scenarios and as often as not, comes up with lines that we happily appropriate for our own use on others. My worry with the inexorable spread of memes however, is that these friends not only become underappreciated, but that they become fewer, and farther between. Why go to the bother of an original and insightfully snarky response to someone’s status update when you can simply edit an existing joke and get the laughs anyway?
It might be suggested that if the end goal – the recipient laughing – is achieved then who gives a shit how we get there? That being said, in my experience memes make people chuckle, grin or quickly expel breath with a few robotic movements of the shoulders in order to be polite. It’s the equivalent of taking someone’s outstretched hand – if it’s offered; it’s rude not to accept.
Real laughter though; full out guffawing where the entire upper body involuntarily gyrates, breathing becomes difficult and tears stream down our faces as for a few moments everything else in our world is as for naught… That doesn’t come from a catchphrase. It doesn’t come from a modification of a joke we’ve seen or read a hundred times before. Memes aren’t unfunny per se but they aren’t funny enough. Our collective sense of humour is being starved of the good stuff and we’re surviving on mediocrity. We’ve eaten McDonald’s for so long – aware it’s not the best but not really too fussed – we’ve forgotten what a real burger tastes like.