I was reading an article in the New York Times the other day about niche comedy. It spoke of a drummer telling jokes about drumming to other drummers, and reminded me of a friend at university who studied maths once telling me about mathematical jokes, which made no sense to non-mathy people.
The joke was something about mathematicians not being able to tell the difference between Christmas and Hallowe’en, because Dec 25 is Oct 31. I did not laugh, because regardless of my deep abiding love for statistics, I am not a complete nerd. To be fair, he didn’t laugh either, but this was because as well as a mathematician, he was a normal human being with a functioning sense of humour.
Anyway, I think the joke had something to do with computers. This did not mean it had something to do with social media, but as we all know by now, I live for turning deeply shaky generalisations into shamelessly tenuous analogies so that I may beat the internet over the head with them until it begs for a nice cup of tea and a sit down.
The whole niche comedy explosion got me thinking about my own tiny niche of bookish humour, and what the internet has ever done for us; which in turn got me thinking about politics and society.
(Bear with me on this one. If it disappoints you, I give you carte blanche to tear it apart in the comments, at which point I will get very, very cross, examine your comment for any grammatical slips, and expose you in a viral tweet which will haunt you for the rest of your life. Just sayin’)
The Comedic Dark Ages
25 years ago, comedy wasn’t really available for groups of people linked by a shared interest in something very specific. The little sector or peer-specific humour we had was generally passed around on paper, photocopied within an inch of its life, eventually rendering it illegible. Jokes passed around orally often lost quite a lot in translation, and a hell of a lot more in poor telling.
Comedians spewed out the same broad routines for years, confident that the same audience wouldn’t have heard the same ‘you-know-when-you-go-to-the-toilet-right?’ jokes twice. Others simply stole routines from their rivals and peers, figuring that whatever was said on a cruise ship leaving Southampton was unlikely to get back to the guy in Edinburgh from whom they stole it.
Mathematicians used the two mathematical jokes they knew to top and tail guest lectures in foreign universities. Drummers told their lonely jokes in bars following gigs, wishing, once they’d had to explain the punchline a second time without even a clash of cymbals to give them their dues, that bands had more than one drummer.
And Irish bloggers with a penchant for bookish humour had nowhere to put sketches about narrative devices having an argument in a pub. They merely loped along, vaguely entertained by some idea forming in their head, with no clue of how to develop it into something which might entertain fellow book lovers, let alone how it might get to them.
In Which I Try To Make The Title (Sort Of) Relevant
In the beginning, the internet was a wide clear windscreen onto the rest of the world. All of a sudden, we had sight of far away people who seemed to think like us, feel like us, and like the same things we did.
Along with short fashionistas, youth culture trendsetters, cold climate survivalists and rabid cat lovers, niche comedy found direction and purpose through the windscreen of the internet. It suddenly knew where it was going, and who was waiting on the other end. It found its home. Millions upon millions of homes, in fact. Which was utterly fantastic – at least for niche comedy.
But it wasn’t long before the windscreen shattered. Internet users who found their spiritual home in the windscreen suddenly found themselves locked into one very small chink of it. It was like the Big Bang in reverse.
Niches became more nichey. Communities shrank into themselves, until the world was full of tiny echo chambers parroting back all the things they knew to be true to each other. The fact that nobody outside their particular chink agreed with them became proof of righteousness, rather than wronginess.
Niches have become enablers. And people do so love being enabled. Most of us spend our whole lives looking for validation in everything from routine bowel movements, to whatever dubious job of work we did last Tuesday.
It’s ironic that a society obsessed with being liked has turned to the internet – that great bastion of ire and upset – to find out if it’s succeeded.
From Big Bangs To Compassionate Vacuums
We all know that the internet is a vacuum into which our attention, motivation, and time disappear. A vacuum is said to be devoid of matter. What matters is that which makes us human, and that is compassion. I think we have all seen evidence that social media is too often devoid of compassion.
Living life online teaches us that no matter what we say, enough faceless people from our chink of the windscreen will agree with us enough to make us feel right. Even when we have upset three people who have been brought to tears, our online interaction has become proof that we must upset people in order to be righteous. Having found our niches, we now can’t find our way out of them.
Which is a long way from comedy, when you think about it. So does anyone have any ideas about how to make it funny again?