David Frum


Unconsidered Trifles: Found Comedy in the Age of Social Media

Apologies for this being a day late, I was taken ill. See here for further details.

The essays in this series have so far been concerned with classic comedy; less charitably, I've been using this valuable real estate to self-indulgently ramble on about the stuff I like. Today, then, I'll be looking at a comic phenomenon that only rose to prominence in the last few years and has yet to reach maturity: Found Comedy.

In one form or another, this has been around for decades, if not centuries: funny misprints, signs and pictures have always been grist to print editors, offering as they do an easy way to fill space without any reporting. In my native land, the master of the genre was Private Eye, the legendary satirical magazine whose pages still creak under the weight of recurring features that have accrued like barnacles. The most reliable laugh is probably Dumb Britain, in which superhumanly stupid quiz show answers are celebrated/mocked:

Name the man who was President of Italy until May 2006.

Don Corleone.

Nevertheless, while such reader-submitted features have always existed, they have tended to be quintessentially ephemeral;* something to eat up the odd spare moment, never a pursuit in its own right. To come into its own, this genre needed a new and different medium. One where readers can submit material quickly and effortlessly and share it with others, where editors and public are almost on the same level. In short, it needed the Internet.

More specifically, it needed social networking. It's easy to forget these days, but sharing things online used to be a cumbersome and limited process. You'd post something to a forum and those with a direct interest in the subject might see it or might not, or you could resort to the bane of all those with elderly relatives: the e-mail forward. These are now used to spread the news about Obama's looming Communist dictatorship (in fact, it's really very sporting of him not to monitor such communications; citizens of real dictatorships had to make do with samizdat), but were once also a popular medium for sharing jokes.

This classic Onion story summarizes the downside to that approach: it was involuntary. Your most grating acquaintance could – and usually would – bombard you with reams of unoriginal drivel at the press of a key. The genius of social networking - “Web 2.0”, as you never seem to hear anyone say any more – was its customizability, the ability to control what you saw and who could see you. Starting with a series of decreasingly clunky Johns the Baptist in the '00s – Friendster, then MySpace, then Facebook – the second coming finally arrived, and it was called Twitter.

Some writers have greeted the cataclysmic rise of Twitter with alarm. They point to the opportunities it offers for anonymous harassment and abuse, the infinite potential for timewasting arguments and the troubling implications of a medium where a premium is placed on instant reaction and (often dubious) facts are digested into opinion within seconds. I concede the truth of these criticisms, but can't conceal my own bias: Twitter is the best thing that ever happened to me. Without going into solipsistic detail, I owe it every bit of minor success I've achieved, and I'm not the only young writer who can say that (just ask our own Justin Green).

Apart from being a perfect way to hone your writing and make contacts, Twitter could have been designed for creating and sharing humor. To see one manifestation, I direct you to the timeline of just about any professional comedian: you'll likely find they devote serious time and effort to Twitter, offering as it does the chance to build a following and get instant feedback between paid gigs. However, Twitter – and the microblogging sites like Tumblr that emerged in its wake - also turned out to be the ideal platform for sharing amusing finds with the world. Very often, Twitter itself isn't where such images, videos and so on are hosted (that tends to be Tumblr or other blogs) but it is the means by which such tidbits so rapidly gain prominence... and are just as rapidly forgotten.

I could spend the rest of this essay trawling through my feed for examples, but I'm guessing most of you use Twitter yourselves and could do better than that in your own time. Instead, I'd like to take a look at three examples of Found Comedy that, while they could have existed in the old world in some form, wouldn't have had a fraction of their vitality or impact.

Cosmic Banality: Angry People in Local Newspapers

At the time of writing, most American cities still (just about) have their own newspapers and those papers still (just about) aspire to a certain level of professionalism and newsworthiness; at first glance, at least, they resemble “serious” publications. Now, I'd like you to take that conception of the phrase “local journalism”, tie it to a rock, throw it away as hard as you can, then run as fast as possible in the other direction. Once you're out of breath, you might be within earshot of what that phrase conjures up in the United Kingdom: dullness. Transcendental, mindblowing dullness.

You see, when we say “local”, we MEAN local. What's that you say? The leader of the world's largest religion just resigned for the first time in six hundred years? Hmmm. Not exactly front page material, is it? Wait, what's that you say? He did WHAT?!? HOLD THE PRESSES!!!

[Caption: Note: “Brum” is shorthand for Birmingham, an English city.] ()

Apart from this stunning level of parochialism, the pages of British local newspapers are dominated by trivial (to everyone not involved) concerns: potholes, garbage collection, noise pollution, etc.. It was this that longtime Curator of Funny Things on the Internet Alistair Coleman (known to Twitter as @scaryduck) decided to chronicle/celebrate/mock in the legendary “Angry People in Local Newspapers” blog. Here's a flavor:

• Noisy manhole cover anger
• Burst water pipe anger
• Vandalized vicarage anger
• Kids pointing at dog turds anger
• Hole in the floor anger

Each of the above, all taken from the current front page, capture the essentials of the genre: inconceivably petty grievance + picture of victim(s) pointing at source of grievance. To this, Coleman adds minimal but witty comment, awarding extra points for particularly good angry expressions, interesting hats and the like. The effect, once you've browsed through a dozen or more, is almost hypnotic. A vast cosmos of tiny annoyances, each looming large for the individual concerned: these are the contours of everyday life.

To let them wash over you is not only to laugh, but to feel in touch with the rest of the human race; a rarity, in our atomized age of self-absorption. That's not to invest the project with undue gravity; APiLN (and its sister blog, Dull News in Local Newspapers) is fundamentally a celebration of triviality and the mundane. It also, my dear complacent American friends, offers you a glimpse of the future. One day, sooner rather than later, the American newspaper industry will enter a terminal phase of agonizing, tottering collapse; all that may be left of the once-great city papers is this kind of hyperlocalism. A depressing thought, perhaps, but don't let that put you off. A semi-regular visit to either of these blogs is one of the easiest hits of pure, innocent joy I've come across.

The Personal is Political: Nice Guys of OKCupid

Now sadly defunct, this fine Tumblr had an explicitly feminist agenda as well as a comic one. Many, if not most of my female readers will be familiar with “Nice Guys®”. Here's a fuller explanation, but in short: in contrast to guys who are actually nice, Nice Guys® are men who complain that women only seem interested in “bad boys” while ignoring them; this nearly always conceals some pretty appalling views about women.

The premise of this blog was simple: highlight men on the popular dating site OKCupid who vocally complain that “nice guys” like them never get laid, accompanied by evidence from elsewhere in their profile that they... might not be so nice after all, at least when it comes to respecting the opposite sex:

Unlike Angry People in Local Newspapers, this blog had a specific point to make. Once these images had attracted wider attention, it was shut down: the perfect example of using mockery to make a point. Now we've moved on from the mockery, we're left with the point. I don't want to take a left turn into feminist theory, so I'll leave the last word to two much better-qualified writers: Laurie Penny at the New Statesman and Rachel Hills at The Atlantic.

Video screenshot

This video became viral because of Miliband's embarrassingly dogged attempt to stay on-message to the point of nervous breakdown, but is also a helpful demonstration of what some have called the “Odd Ed” problem. His voice is adenoidal and grating, his manner unnatural and studied. The word we're looking for here is awkward. You can't picture having him round for dinner without the evening rapidly descending into unbearably polite silence.

Awkwardness, however, isn't an easy concept to summarize verbally, so the creator of this Tumblr did us all a favor by assembling a connection of “Awkward Ed Miliband Moments” that collectively capture the man's essence (his public essence, I mean: I'm sure his family quite like him).

The cumulative effect is quietly devastating. These images (accompanied, like the Angry People, by witty captions) have the effect of humanizing Miliband and making him a more sympathetic figure... while simultaneously making it completely impossible to picture him running the country. Once a politician has that aura of mediocrity clinging to them, they are doomed: think of John Kerry in 2004. Luckily for him, the Cameron government seems to be doing its best to help him into office.

There we have it: a life-affirming gallery of everyday whining, some ad hoc feminist activism and one man's extended political eulogy, each created with minimal effort and distributed to thousands or millions with the click of a mouse. Take that potential, multiply it several million times and you get: the future, if not of humanity, then at least of comedy. While reliant on modern technology, the Found Comedy revolution has taken humor back to its roots: people gathering together to laugh at the same thing at the same time. Yet again, the Internet is found to be corrosive to loneliness.

I'm sure you have your own favorite finds. Please share them in the comments.

*How did I become the type of person who uses phrases like “quintessentially ephemeral”? It wasn't always this way; I used to speak English. I do apologize (just not enough to edit, obviously)