I was hunting for an old email the other day, when I came across a joke which had been sent to me by a work colleague. It was not a very good joke. I don’t know why I kept it. Neither the subject of the joke nor the sender of the email were close to my heart. Still, I’d kept it.
It occurred to me that not only would I not have kept that joke today, I wouldn’t have got it in the first place. Nobody sends jokes by email anymore. People barely send emails by email anymore. Yet when I started working in the late 1990s, much of my inbox was made up of light entertainment, shared by people I physically interacted with in everyday life.
Deeper in the past, I remember tapes of rude songs being passed around school, along with occasional paper-based wit, faded from repeated photocopying and pressed into soft, ragged folds. That was what passed for file sharing, once upon a time.
Nowadays we get our jokes, our links and our light entertainment through social media; from specialist content aggregators, whimsical news sites, and our Auntie Gertrude, who still doesn’t understand Facebook, and is unintentionally hilarious in 4 out of every 5 status updates.
Where Did All The Weird Funny Stuff Go Before The Internet?
Some of my favourite entertainment now comes from bloggers, who put out well-worded whimsy on subjects as diverse as the philosophy of puddles, or how to cook clickbait. But where did these glorious pieces of outside-the-box human creativity go, before the internet? Where were the cat pictures, humorous prose, and lists of things which were okay in the ’50s?
It’s tempting to feel nostalgic for a time when not everything had have a clickbait title, a list, or a killer image, before anyone would engage with it. True, once upon a time we read more books, bought more newspapers, and spent less time wondering whether Kylie Jenner’s Instagram feed was voting for Donald Trump. It was a time when having actual substance to an article was expected. A time when content counted, and when people thought.
Whereas these days, it’s all about bland listicles relatable to 90% of humans with an internet connection, and 200-word articles spread over 10 pages festooned with ‘NEXT >>’ buttons.
Well, it depends on who you ask, and when.
If you were to ask me a day after I put up a post with a vague title which had effectively killed it off, I might agree with you.
But sometimes I love what unrestricted file sharing has brought us. Niche humour is no longer niche – it’s just funny. Witty writers, with no intentions of ditching their day jobs to become bitter and impoverished comedians, are finding audiences for content which would have been greeted with incredulity even 10 years ago. 30 years ago, it might have got them placed into a mental institution.
Because before the internet, it was almost like thinking of weird funny stuff just made you weird.
Picture the scene. It is 1990.
Sometime Writer: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!
Comic Foil: What are you laughing at?
Sometime Writer: I’ve just written this thing about a cat writing a diary. He lists all the ways he tries to kill his owner. But he always fails.
Comic Foil: Why would you do that?
Sometime Writer: I dunno. It just came to me.
Comic Foil: But what are you going to do with it?
Sometime Writer: How should I know?
Comic Foil: This is like that other thing you were talking about yesterday. Michael Jackson’s greatest hits, rewritten as Shakespearian sonnets. What did you do with that?
Sometime Writer: I think it’s in a drawer somewhere.
Comic Foil: But what’s the point of writing all this stuff when nobody’s asking you to?
Sometime Writer: I dunno. I suppose I can show it to all my friends.
Comic Foil: Dude. You only have one friend. Me.
Sometime Writer: That’s not funny.
Comic Foil: I’ll tell you what is funny, though.
Sometime Writer: Yeah? What?
Comic Foil: This joke I heard yesterday…Wait…No, it’s gone. Sorry.
What would have happened, 20 years ago, if I had thought up a piece in which I had an imaginary conversation with an unreliable narrator? Or if a friend showed you a list of ten ways to tell if your favourite TV show is subliminally converting you to cannibalism? Or someone tried to tell you they were excited because their ‘Open Letter To Open Letters’ had been picked up by McSweeneys?
Nothing, that’s what. There was no home for this sort of creativity. It had nowhere to go. It died a sad, tumbleweed death, forgotten by its makers, who never really understood where it came from anyway. Sometimes it got published in a magazine somewhere. But it never really fit in there either. Niche humour was the misunderstood YA protagonist of the comedy genre.
Um, I Know I Had A Point Around Here Somewhere
The point is, everyone is funny some of the time. Just not all of the time. The only difference between you and a comedian is that comedians are supposed to spend their careers generating comedy.
In reality, most of us will come out with a bit of comic genius at least once in our lives. Before, a handful of people might have appreciated it. But now it can be shared online, be it in an Instagram caption, a rip-roaring tweet, or the status update that brings the house down. And isn’t it a marvellous thing that you might be able to get some credit for it?
For all its failings, the internet democratises creativity. We might lament the fact that photos of someone’s new shoes got 3,000 more hits than our last blog post, which took hours to write; or that content-free articles are sucking up readers faster than we can buy 10,000 Twitter followers for 19.99. But nothing can take away from the fact that the internet has allowed unconnected humans with wit and talent to find and entertain each other.
And apart from my fearsome resolve to find much more clickbaity titles for every single one of my posts, I wouldn’t change a thing.
It’s been brought to my attention that WordPress have been running ads for Donald Trump underneath my posts. WordPress run the ads here, not me. They want me to pay them to stop this practice, but I can’t. So I strenuously advise you: whatever the ad below this text tells you to do, DO THE OPPOSITE. (Unless, of course, it tells you to have a lovely day.)