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LOL: How Memes Are Shaping Post-Modern Humor

“What is a joke?” you might ask. Bad news, that is the wrong question, at least for a postmodern society. Postmodernity does not deal with definitions, we should know that already. Definitions are limiting, mostly binary, repressive (or so they say).

Traditional jokes, as we know them, are lineal. They have a defined structure, they respond to certain patterns. They also have a time and a space in which they are acceptable.

For example, in the case of a joke about the people of New York or farmers in a remote area of ​​Italy, there is a place where that joke makes sense and is acceptable (at home with friends, in a bar, at a comedy club, etc.). They also have a time, a moment, in which that joke can be told (on a break from work, a weekend, at the time of the performance, etc.). In the case of the quintessential humor typical of postmodern societies, the meme, that space-time limit is erased. One can receive a meme at any time because they are unexpected. We may be in an important work meeting, at a funeral, or even in bed trying to sleep. Like so many things in postmodern societies, humor has become more intrusive, less predictable.

Memes can use traditional art images blending "high" and "low" culture

As we know well, ever since Marshall McLuhan, the medium through which a joke is transmitted (a meme in this case) affects the content of the joke itself. It explains why the jokes that we circulate online are much shorter, and make minimal use of language.

Another aspect that differentiates postmodern humor is that jokes are non-linear, given their unpredictability and fragmented nature. The meme can appear at any time, it does not need a context, it does not depend on the classic narrative of the type: "An Irisman walks into a pub..." Memes permeate everything, they even appear in the most serious media. In fact, the difference between what is serious and what is funny is eliminated.

Another variety of postmodern humor is the short video (Reels, Tiktok, Youtube, etc.). that blur the distinction between reality and fiction. In "traditional" humor, one of the actors may pose as a doctor and another as a patient to perform a sketch, but viewers will never believe that the person is actually a doctor. However, when today we see a video shot in a real clinic where a person who genuinely looks like a doctor makes a joke or creates a funny situation, we are not sure if it is something that has happened and someone has recorded casually with their camera, or was actually scripted.

Although the way a joke is told is very important in traditional humor, there is a great dependence on the punch-line. This is not the case with postmodern humor, since in many cases the irony or the contradiction itself of the situation is what matters.

Postmodern humor is totally self-aware and sometimes uses that self-awareness as a comic element. Being visually much richer than traditional humor (which depends more on the continuity of the story and the logical, or illogical, development of the situation), Postmodern humor takes into account other elements that may be significant, for example the way people are dressed, the accents when they speak or the car they drive, to name just a few examples.

At the same time, traditional humor is almost always unidirectional, where one person tells a joke and the rest receive it passively. This is not the case with many memes, since the "receiver" of the joke has to complete it with many presupposed elements. They are the equivalent of an inside joke among thousands of people. Sometimes we are required to fill in the blank for the joke to make sense. If we succeed, it is like getting the code right among a social group; failure to do so means not belonging to that group. This is why many memes can be extremely funny to teenagers, but their parents can't understand why.

At the same time, postmodern humor is democratized since almost anyone can create, manipulate or adapt memes by removing or adding things. It is not something that cannot be done in traditional humor (for example changing "Irishman" for "someone from Paris"). Instead, the versatility offered by today's audiovisual medium makes the variability of the meme almost infinite.

All this does not change the function that humor plays in our society (whatever it may be). What changes is the way in which that humor is presented to us and that, in turn, influences the content of the humor itself.

By Adrián G. Vega (author of "The End of Everything: A society in transition")

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