I’m a huge fan of the BBC’s The Thick of It, and in the first episode the Liberal Democrats, cosying up as they are to ‘upper class-holes’ are labelled, ‘The Inbetweeners’. Fantastic.
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.
The following is something I wrote when I was considering ghostwriting someone’s autobiography about their failed pregnancy. Despite the sombre nature of the events, they wanted a ‘Bridget Jones‘ feel to it. I wrote this to see how easily it would flow. The answer is not well at all, but I think it’s okay.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t looking forward to pregnancy. Aside from growing to the size of Sweden and losing the ability to walk more than ten yards without stopping for a breather, it’s a scientific fact that pregnant women don’t just develop babies in their wombs, but hand magnets as well. I’m not one of those people who has a thing about being touched, you understand – conception’s rather more difficult if you do – but why whenever people see a pregnant friend, or even someone they barely know, do they feel like they’ve got a sudden and irrefutable right to engage in the middle class equivalent of happy slapping? We don’t rustle someone’s hair after they’ve just spent £140 at Mark Scott or stamp on their toes when they’ve taken out a second mortgage for a pair of Manolos, so why do we lurch for the gut whenever we see a kangaroo impression?
‘I felt him kick!’ they gleefully explain time and again, largely oblivious to the fact that the thing he’s kicking is me and it bloody hurts. Small wonder that violent crimes are up these days when you think about it. Even before they’re born we’re teaching the next generation that violence results in warmth and affection. If we kept this behaviour up when the little buggers came out we’d be buying them PlayStations for matricide.
And don’t get me started on childbirth. I wasn’t raised by Hollywood; I know what it involves and the thought of sweating, crying, pissing and shitting in front of a room of people I don’t know and probably wouldn’t like doesn’t really appeal to me. In fact it’s probably fair to say I’d rather spend twelve hours locked in academic debate concerning the geopolitical ramifications of The Jeremy Kyle Show being exported to Israel. All whilst sober of course. Can’t drink whilst pregnant because you’ll give birth to Johnny Vegas. Can’t smoke because your baby will come out smelling like an 80’s East London cab office. Can’t use a microwave because they’re more harmful to foetuses than gun shots, can’t stroke cats because the kid’ll get furballs, and can’t drink coffee in case your offspring turns out like Woody Allen. Can’t get herpes either. I swear to God one of the online guides I read for newly pregnant mothers instructed me not to get herpes. As if that was something I did for kicks every other Thursday anyway.
This is all to say nothing of after the pregnancy. ‘You’ll never care for anything in your life the same way again,’ I was told. Excuse me? I like caring about the things I care about. I don’t want to lose interest in them. I also don’t want to be broke. The only thing more expensive than raising a child for eighteen years is being sued by them when their therapist decides they had a traumatic childhood and it’s because you didn’t hug them enough. Or it’s because you hugged them too much. Finding the middle ground in order to avoid litigation these days is like trying to describe a black co-worker without mentioning their skin colour in case you come off as racist.
And I never really believed these women who said they’d never been happier. I suppose it might be true but they all looked exhausted to me. We might all have read about the City Supermums who balance commanding globalisation with being home in time to cook the fish fingers to perfection, and I’ll admit to hating Catherine Zeta Jones a little bit for apparently looking perfect only five hours after her vulva was doing its Vesuvius but normal women aren’t like that. Normal women have stretch marks, bags under their eyes, sleepless nights, all too regular trips to mothercare, judgmental doctors (how did she get that bruise again?), no social life, no sex life! Who in the world looks forward to all of that? Apart from Mel Gibson’s wife, obviously. Being pregnant looked like the uncomfortable start to an unhappy existence.
As I’ve previously mentioned, catching the bus every day allows me the dubious privilege of sitting near to teenage chavs and listening to their tedious tirades. So there was nothing special last Thursday when I was present for the discussion of what to do about Becky’s new boyfriend (who is, like, totally, a fucking arsehole, you know what I’m saying?). What made it reasonable bearable though, was an idea that popped into my head as I tried not to listen.
I’m currently reading The Picture of Dorien Grey by the incomparable Oscar Wilde. As I’m only a few chapters in it’s much too soon for a review but thus far there are two defining characteristics of the book that I mention when asked. Firstly is the unfortunate chance that it is filled with fatuous, facetious, superficial, and eminently loath-worthy characters. There is so far, not a one that I actually identify with or even like. What rescues Wilde’s only novel however, is his prose. The man writes in what can only be described as an elaborately beautiful way and though his characters observations are often despicable and even cringe-worthy on occassion, there’s no denying the poetry with which they utter their bile.
You know full well what a lover of the English language I am. French may well be more romantic, Italian more passionate and Latin more descript but I honestly believe that carefully handled, there’s no literary task beyond the language of Shakespeare, Wilde and Austen. By ‘carefully handled,’ I am of course thinking, ‘old fashioned.’ A GCSE student today may well be able to paint an exquisite painting of a rosebud but they won’t be able to do it if they restrict themselves to modern-stylee speech patterns. For such a task it’s undeniable that something akin to, ‘the satin smooth cheek of the petal, broken only in its perfection by a solitary teardrop of condensation,’ is immeasurably preferable to, ‘it’s red and there’s nothing on it except a bit of rain.’
Mind you, let’s not knock modern language too much. The Victorians may well have had admirably complex dialogue compared to what we use today but how long did it take them to get their point across? More importantly, how often did Wilde get to say, ‘motherfucker?’ For sheer bluntness, we’ve never had it so good.
But I digress. Whilst attempting to read Grey and simultaneously trying to block out discussion on Becky’s sexual habits, I was struck by an idea of how to pass the time the next time I got bored (read, ‘showed up’) at work. Why not take their nauseating bitch-a-thon and rewrite it in the style of Wilde? Why not indeed, good man? So let’s fuckin’ ‘ave it!
“Has the poor girl not learnt from her observations of Miss Chez?” waxed Miss Mel, her passion and insight in the subject offered as seemingly profound despite widespread existing agreement. “The man – Mr Baz is his name – his escapades with the ladies of town are well documented. Indeed one is forced to wonder if we two are the only remaining beauties as yet unspoiled by his exploits.” She halted in discussion, evidently expecting agreement to be vocal rather than assumed.
“Verily what you say is true, my dear girl,” ventured Miss Shell. “Many are the times I have communicated similar messages to the unfortunate girl myself and met naught but sullen silence in response. Though it be unfortunate in the extreme however, perhaps we poor souls must consign ourselves to the fact that no matter the wisdom of our words, darling Miss Tracie must make her own mistakes and so learn the lessons of love in her own crucible. Hear me now though when I say that when, and I do not allow for the inclusion of, ‘if’ here – when her heart is broken I shall not hesitate to remind her of the sage counsel she forsook this past week.”
“By all that is right my dear girl, I believe you speak the truth and shall join you in that unfortunate but necessary conversation which surely cannot be far in the future. But now, let our discourse take a more pleasurable tone. Have you had the happy chance of meeting Mr Geordie? I feel certain that there is a man worth our interest, if you will allow me the uncouth pleasure of admiring a man’s wallet more readily than I do his complexion.”
“Indeed, I have my dear. Certainly he is one to be marked in society as a gentleman of the highest order. I hear tell that only last Saturday he occasioned to take young Miss Trisha to his boudoir and yet did not attempt to despoil the young thing on account of her inebriated state.”
“Certainly that is the mark of a man in this day and age, my dear. Though it must be said that many men would follow in his footsteps where the young girl is concerned were they to lack a degree of intoxication themselves.”
Now whilst the sentiment of what’s written above is far from nice, I hope I’ve done a good enough job of polishing up the language. Judge for yourself. Here’s a reasonably accurate translation from English to Chav.
“Has she not fucking learned with what happened to Chez? Baz shags about all the time: he’s a right man-whore – I bet he’s shagged every girl in town except us two.”
“I’ve told her, trust, but she don’t fucking listen, does she? I know it’s sad but she’s just going to have to learn her lesson the hard way and when he fucks her about, I’ll fucking tell her I told her so.”
“Yeah, me too. And you know it’s gonna happen soon, dontcha? But forget about her – have you seen that Geordie lad? He’s well worth it – bit ugly but he’s fucking loaded.”
“Yeah! And he’s a gentleman* too. He took Trisha back to his place last Saturday and didn’t shag her because she was too pissed.”
“Oh, that’s well good! To be honest though, I bet most guys wouldn’t shag her unless they were drunk, you know what I’m saying?”
Ah, the wonders of language. Beyond the above there’s little point to this post but I think I’ve hit onto something. Take an aspect of modern speech and twist it to your own needs. Try it with a politician’s speech. Write what they say and then try and decode it to figure out what they actually mean. Take your boss speaking to their supervisors making excuses for poor productivity and figure out which shortcomings their bletherings actually relate to. Or take my example – kids on the bus – and try and turn whatever rubbish comes out of their mouth into a halfway decent conversation. It passes the time, gives you something to observe whilst on public transport and improves your language skills all in one! I knew I should have been an English teacher…
* – Yes, she did say gentleman. Curious to see how little one has to do nowadays to be labelled as such, no?
• We tell you the lies you want to hear. We lie when we say we don’t mind your annoying friend coming round, we lie when we say we’re looking forward to your mother’s party and we lie about the dress and your bum. We lie about all of these things because we want you to be happy.
• We don’t manipulate you because we don’t know how and that’s not a failing. We don’t want you twisted around our little finger; we just want you around.
• We accept responsibility for everything that goes wrong in the bedroom. When we don’t get aroused it’s our fault; when you don’t get aroused it’s still our fault. When you don’t orgasm it’s not only our fault but a subject of discontent with the girls. You might ignore the very possibility that the problem might be you but we don’t; we just keep quiet about it because we’re better than that.
• We don’t try and change you. You might see ‘the man we can be’ but we got with you because we respect who you are now. While you say we’re wasted potential, we say we love you.
• We don’t need foreplay. You need an expensive meal and a night out and compliments and a big performance. All we need is you because that’s what we care about.
• We might tell sexist jokes but when it counts we treat you as an equal. Can you say the same? Do you take the bins out or is that a ‘man’s job’? When we make a mistake could it happen to anyone or is it us being a, ‘typical man’? Is everyone going to chip in for the ridiculous wedding that only you want or is it going to be your Dad and us sorting something out?
• We want to spend time with you because we want to be with you; not because we might get some free drinks or gifts bought for us. We don’t expect you to go to the bar when it’s our round and we’re not surprised when you hit the bathroom just before the cheque arrives. Shouldn’t you be a little ashamed though?
• No we don’t care what wallpaper gets put up, no we don’t care what colour you (meaning ‘we’) paint the kitchen, we don’t care about the carpets and we don’t care about the bedsheets. We care about you and so long as we can be with you, things like that really fade into the background. Whatever makes you happy, darling.