Timing. One of the cornerstones of humor.
Nobody knows this better than Professor Sophie Scott, Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.
Scott and I were recently talking about her work on laughter and humor, when she muted her microphone to not cough in my ear. Seems like everyone needs to justify sneezing or coughing these days. “It’s hay fever, it’s not… well read the room hay fever, we’ve got enough going on.”
Not a week later, I read an article by SparkToro co-founder and CEO Rand Fishkin that starts “When folks ask me about how best to do marketing right now [during the COVID-19 pandemic], my answer is consistently turning into the same three words: Read the room.”
The next day I watched Karyn Buxman’s TEDx Talk where she suggests it’s “more important to ‘see’ funny than it is to ‘be’ funny.” And to do that you have to intentionally raise your awareness and start looking for humor, you’ll see funny things everywhere. And by being able to spot the funny (instead of constantly trying to be the funny) you’re opening your mind to opportunities and other viewpoints.
So ya, timing. (And serendipity.)
As it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the memes (and humor) I’ve seen relating to COVID-19.
Pets at home not sure what to make of quarantine:
So many movies about apocalypse (including zombie apocalypse) that we had very different expectations… no one thought robes and slippers would be involved:
Parents who don’t normally home school are frustrated (and they probably don’t remember how hard it is to math):
Toilet paper hoarding was the first thing that went out of control… it became a form a currency since not everyone could get any:
Everyone not used to working from home (and the luxuries it entails) are realizing you gotta be prepared for that impromptu Zoom call with the boss:
The longer this pandemic lasts, the more memes people seem to create.
I asked myself why.
Why are we resorting to memes during a time of crisis (and as people are dying)? And why are they so damn funny?
To understand COVID memes at a rudimentary level, we have to explore four factors:
- Memes (and their place in our society).
- Humor and laughter (and their anthropological, physiological and societal roles).
- Sharing memes (and how that affects happiness).
- Gallows humor (and its role managing stress, fear and even death).
What’s in a meme? And a covid meme, particularly?
At the most basic level, a meme is a representation of a phenomenon or concept that is repeatedly imitated and mutated ad infinitum. Memes are most often spread via social media and there are several different types of memes.
With everyone under quarantine, it got boring quickly. We started paying way more attention to our neighbors:
Observations in the wild: pay attention to how people are acting and reacting. We’re taking notes.
I mean, is there anything as adorable as Pooh and Piglet taking a walk in the forest while Pooh imparts his Taoist wisdom? But even Pooh bear doesn’t want to catch COVID.
Another, perhaps more precise definition of a meme was coined by Limor Shifman, senior lecturer in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in her book Memes in Digital Culture. Shifman suggests a meme is a:
“group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance that were created with awareness of each other; and were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.”
Though the book dates back to 2013, this definition still holds.
The internet of the 21st century is driven by a “participatory culture,” one in which audiences are no longer being fed pop culture, but arguably creating it themselves. And memes are one way we’re doing that. In other words, memes are a form of communication; they’re how we convey our ideas or observations and how we voice our opinions and viewpoints to others in a fun way.
Whereas in past years, copying (or plagiarism of sorts) was frowned upon, Shifman posits that Web 2.0 culture is propelled by copying and imitating, which is (in the case of memes) the best form of flattery.
“In this environment, user-driven imitation and remixing are not just prevalent practices: they have become highly valued pillars.”
Hence memes like these.
This one appeals to the Gen Xers in the house. Mary Poppins is the epitome of what we all aspire to be at home, while Miss Hannigan is the more frightening (yet realistic) rendition:
Everyone’s always so excited when you start something new:
Matthew McConaughey can really play any part, can’t he?
As memes have become more prevalent across our culture, this is how we choose to communicate not only amongst our peers but with the world through social media (and beyond).
So although it might seem on the surface as though the use of memes minimizes the importance of certain events, “A deeper look reveals that they play an integral part in some of the defining events of the 21st century,” explains Shifman.
What part, exactly? Simply put, memes can serve several purposes – shaming actions (our own and others’), relating, camaraderie, empathy, pointing out the obvious, etc. – and no matter their purpose, they all serve to bring about laughter.
Thrillist staff writer Wil Fulton created an acronym (MEME) to define the characteristics of memes:
- Message: There needs to be a clearly definable, central message or reference that’s understood, and relatable by commonly shared knowledge or experience.
- Evolution: The meme cannot remain static. It must be adopted and remixed by a community of people that embrace it.
- Malleability: It must aid in its own evolution by having defined characteristics that can be changed while maintaining and preserving some semblance of the original message.
- Effect: It has to reach a certain level of popularity and understanding, or the message won’t matter. Perhaps the most important part of the meme is its virality.
One part that I think is missing from both Shifman and Fulton’s definitions or criteria is the fact that a meme isn’t a meme if it isn’t shared. Though they both allude to it – Shifman’s “circulated” and Fulton’s “popularity” – shareability is one of the cornerstones of memehood.
The whole tree-falling-in-the-forest adage rings true right about here.
If a meme isn’t shared, is it even a meme?
This is an important characteristic because it will serve us later in answering the question of why memes seem to have become an acceptable way to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic crisis of 2020. (More on that later.)
Another cornerstone is the “it’s funny because it’s true” nature of memes. The reason memes are funny is because they’re based on actual facts. In comedy, the best jokes come from observational humor. In the online world, memes serve the same purpose.
Covid memes and the science of humor
|“You cannot hope to understand the most serious things in life unless you understand the most humorous.” – Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
…And there are few things in life more serious than facing a global pandemic.
Both Buxman, a registered nurse and neuro-humorist, and the Mayo Clinic agree that humor offers certain emotional and mental benefits, such as establishing relationships, relieving anxiety, releasing anger in a socially acceptable way, decreasing depression and loneliness and increasing self-esteem, as well as physical benefits like increasing pain tolerance, improving respiration and breathing and exercising facial, abdominal and chest muscles, leading to reduced muscle tension.
These days, the anxiety, fear and inherent loneliness from being isolated for weeks at a time can be jarring, to say the least. Humor, in that sense, is helping to unite us in a socially acceptable way.
It’s been shown that as a positive emotion, humor can undo the physical effects of negative emotions like anger or sadness, which corroborates the idea that one of the evolutionary purposes of positive emotions (notably humor) is to ease or reduce tension.
And since the start of COVID-19, we’ve seen a lot of this through shared memes like this…
Based on the posts in the earlier half of quarantine, you were either preparing to join Top Chef or Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew:
In a longitudinal study conducted by Robert W. Levenson et al and published by the American Psychological Association, 157 middle-aged and older couples were studied beginning in 1989. The study reports,
“One of the powerful themes that emerged from this work was the association between successful emotion regulation during conflictive interaction and marital satisfaction and stability.”
That is, those who were readily able to regulate their emotions (through humor) were found not only to have a more satisfactory and stable marriage, but also stayed married longer (over 50 years) than those who didn’t or couldn’t regulate their own emotions. “These couples introduced positive emotions, such as affection and humor, to ‘soothe’ and ‘calm’ the interaction, thus reducing the level of negativity to a point where they could continue to work on the issues at hand.”
You can equate this to those of us who seem to laugh during particularly gruesome scenes in horror movies, or share funny stories during a funeral or wake, or when we laugh at someone who just fell (but didn’t seriously hurt themselves). The Levenson study suggests that these behaviors are meant to reduce our negative emotional states, specifically fear, anger and sadness.
As luck (or serendipity, ahem) would have it, March brought with it one of the few Friday the 13th and it was an opportunity for pop culture and memes to make magic:
Who wouldn’t be afraid of someone in a Michael Myers costume at the grocery store?
A joke Stephen King fans would understand:
Samuel L. Jackson is one of my favorites… his expressions (and swearing) says it all:
Though sometimes it’s suggested that you “sweep [your feelings/thoughts] under the rug” to avoid negative emotions, Levenson et al suggest evoking a positive emotion is more beneficial than suppressing a negative one.
They concluded by suggesting that this strategy “[m]ay have the long-term advantage of reducing demands on the autonomic nervous system, allowing us to redirect our physical and cognitive resources toward other challenges in the environment.”
By creating and sharing things that make us laugh, we can reduce negativity or regulate our negative emotional states to adapt.
Humor (and laughter) are the much-needed medicine we all require during a pandemic.
The power of laughter during a pandemic
|“If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think.” – Clarence Darrow, American Civil Rights activist
Buxman explains that:
“Humor generates a cascade of neurotransmitters which engage your prefrontal cortex which processes wit, [engages] the limbic system which evokes mirth, [and engages] the occipital lobe which generates laughter.”
TL;DR laughter engages your whole brain. It’s like a full-body workout but for your brain… and laughter is your cardio.
Dr. Robert Provine, former professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, found that (not surprisingly) we laugh more (way more) when we’re with friends. He explains,
“Social laughter is 30x more frequent than solitary laughter. And the discovery here was it was the relationship between individuals that was causing the laughter not jokes.”
And Scott confirms that, indeed, laughter is an extremely behaviorally-contagious effect that you’re more likely to ‘catch’ from someone you know than from someone you don’t. Which explains why we always seem to laugh more (out loud) when we’re surrounded by others than when we’re alone. It’s like when you are at a live comedy show in a room full of people vs when you’re watching a comedy special on your couch. I know I’m way more boisterous in groups than alone.
Good news: there’s an actual physiological reason for this phenomenon. It involves mirror neurons.
Assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the director of social neuroscience in the Psychotherapy Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, Carl Marci, MD, suggests that based on studies done to measure the effects of laughter during psychotherapy, “Mirror neurons, which are linked to empathic behavior, are often involved in laughter. Mirror neurons are a subset of neurons that fire both when we perform an action and when we observe that same action performed by others.”
And during his TEDxMünchen talk, award-winning filmmaker, novelist, and playwright, Anthony McCarten explains,
“The forces of seriousness would limit us to narrow thinking, rigid ideology, cruelty and tunnel vision. Whereas humor obliges us to have an open mind, it obliges empathy and forgiveness.”
McCarten’s quote hits me particularly close to home. Growing up, everything was turned into a joke in my family. And for better or for worse, it’s meant that as an adult, I also try to turn everything into a joke, or at least see the humor in everything. It gives me a different perspective than I find others might have because I don’t take myself (or others) too seriously.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a deep belly laugh, then you don’t need “experts” to explain that laughter is contagious, especially when you’re with people you know and trust.
But why? Why do we suddenly burst out into laughter just because we’re in the company of others? Why are we exponentially more likely to laugh when we’re with friends or family?
Scott provides the answer:
“Wherever you find [laughter], it’s associated with interactions… you’re laughing to show people you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them.”
McCarten goes a step further to suggest that we’ll laugh at almost anything to maintain our standing within a “community” because jokes (humor and laughing) connect us. Alison Beard, senior editor at Harvard Business Review, says,
“Good comedy is a conspiracy. Create an in-group.”
Meanwhile, philosopher Ted Cohen surmises that laughing at someone’s joke means you have the same worldview (of a given topic):
“humor serves the vital psychological and social function of confirming or cultivating intimacy, and establishing or reinforcing community.”
But way before in-jokes, before studies and research, before… even maybe speech, laughter signified to fellow humans that everything was okay, or that danger had passed.
The evolution of quarantine realization through the Kanye West lens:
So many stories about cruise ships being stranded for fear of sick passengers:
So how can laughter during the COVID-19 pandemic signify that the danger has passed? Especially since it has not (not yet, at least) passed?
Sharing (covid memes) is caring
According to Scott, there’s an unspoken communication hierarchy that dictates how happy or satisfied we are with our social interactions.
It should come as no surprise that the highest level of satisfaction comes from face-to-face communication. This is due in most part to the fact that seeing each other allows us to read non-verbal cues that allow us to paint a more complete picture of the message(s) we’re receiving (or sharing). This not only occurs in-person but nowadays can include video calls when you can’t physically be together (hello Zoom and FaceTime!).
When that’s not an option, auditory communication is next in the preferred communication hierarchy, followed by written communication like letters, emails, even social media posts. It stands to reason that with less interaction (visual or auditory), we lose parts of the message, and therefore, our satisfaction with those interactions is lower.
Can the interaction represented by sharing memes, despite their lack of face-to-face communication, generate the same joy and satisfaction as cracking someone up in person?
I hypothesize that the act of sharing something on social media is the modern-day “stamp of approval.” It’s the equivalent of communicating to another that (1) you approve of this content, (2) you think it’s funny and (3) you believe they will agree that it’s funny.
Usually these three things are instantaneously communicated and understood when you’re physically in the same room as someone else sharing a story. However, when you can’t be in the same room together, sharing something on social media helps to solidify that intent.
The act of sharing memes is the sticky point here. And if someone else shares something that you’ve shared, then, as Scott explains:
“You feel like you’ve had a social interaction, even if you weren’t laughing out loud in person.”
The other, and arguably more important, power of memes lies in the fact that not everyone understands or gets the joke. And much like how McCarten suggests you have to belong to the “community” to be “in on it,” understanding a meme gives you that same sense of approval and acceptance. It makes you feel like you’re part of a certain community.
There is no better feeling than knowing that you understood a joke that not everyone will be privy to; not everyone will understand or appreciate. You’ve probably also been on the other side of the interaction, when you see people laughing or enjoying a meme or joke and you’re sitting there wondering, “What am I missing? I don’t get it.”
When you get it, it’s empowering.
Again, a Gen-X joke at its finest: Chuck Norris drinks Coronavirus for breakfast:
Do you remember the SARS outbreak? I sure do.
It looked very different than the COVID-19 outbreak:
A riff on the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks:
The Chris Farley Show from Saturday Night Live, where he awkwardly says “That was awesome” during his celebrity interviews:
By now I’ve shown my age… the toilet paper cozy grandma had of that weird-looking Barbie-wannabe with matching knit hat and dress:
Meanwhile, most of the social media population logs on to share positive emotions, things that make you laugh or make you happy. Says Scott:
“We use laughter and humor quite overtly to try and reduce anxiety and stress by sharing laughter or sharing something we can laugh at.”
That’s the intent: to deal with or even de-escalate stress, because we know (now) that humor helps decrease depression and loneliness (check, check) but also makes us feel good (cheeeeeeeck!).
Those in particularly stressful jobs have been known to deal with their stress by way of more macabre or dark humor. Which leads us to…
Get your mind outta the gallows
Scott introduced me to the weird and wonderful world that is humor in high-stress jobs. She explains they serve three purposes: “1. Increasing social bonding. 2. Dealing with the stress of the job and coping. 3. Keeping outsiders out.”
What I found in my research is that most of these high-stress on-the-job jokes are quite dark and morbid. And although some translate to outsiders, as an “outsider,” I admit that you probably had to be there.
Gallows humor, as it is referred to, takes serious, painful, or even scary topics and trivializes them in an irreverent or satirical way. Professor Katie Watson, lawyer and bioethicist at Northwestern University and adjunct faculty member at The Second City in Chicago, says:
“Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous or terrifying situations fits the category as well.”
In her book, Doctors in the Making, Dr. Suzanne Poirier, professor emerita of literature and medical education at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, explains,
“Anger and gallows humor are generally accepted forms of expression among undergraduate and graduate medical students… but expressions of serious self-doubt or grief are usually kept private or shared with only a trusted few.”
In these types of professions, serious self-doubt and grief can be construed as incompetence or being unable to hack it. Instead, gallows humor helps accomplish two things: first, release tension and stress, and second, save face with colleagues and superiors.
Even Sigmund Freud proposed that those who are “unafflicted” prefer when “victims” joke about their predicament because “it relieves us of the burden of sympathy.” As the joker, however, Freud further suggested it’s how we choose to avoid dealing with both internal (like our inhibitions) and external (things that are out of our control) conflicts, the latter of which is best dealt with laughter rather than anger.
And it’s also been documented that concentration camp prisoners would joke about their circumstances as a way to deal with the horrible injustices they faced.
The curious chihuahua gets me every time:
Pretty morbid but also true:
“A joke is a rebellion against oppressive authority, and few authorities are more oppressive than death, illness, and injury,” says Watson.
George Saunders wrote,
“Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to. The comic is the truth stripped of the habitual, the cushioning, the easy consolation.”
Saunders calls this ‘rapid-truthing’. In the case of gallows humor, oftentimes, rapid-truthing is seen in the form of breaking down a situation (likely a grim or dire one) and calling out its absurdity. To the layperson, this may seem insensitive, but sometimes it’s necessary to get your point across faster and with impunity. And sometimes that rapid-truthing may end up looking like a joke.
Philogelos, or The Laughter Lover, is the oldest known collection of jokes that dates back to the fourth or fifth century. Some of the jokes were about oversexed women (ahem!), the absent-minded professor (the era’s equivalent to blonde jokes), and other themes that translate today with a few lingo swaps.
But others, jokes about crucifixion, don’t translate so well to the 21st century and, more so, make you wonder… WTF was wrong with these people?
|From Philogelos, Joke #121 (as translated by Professor William Berg)
An Abderite observes a runner who’s been crucified. “By the gods,” he exclaims, “He’s no longer running – he’s flying!”
To us, this seems both insensitive and incomprehensible, even “inconceivable,” but the fact of the matter is that in those days, crucifixion was everywhere, in public places and in plain sight for everyone to see and fear. And as we’ve already discovered, humor is one of the best ways of dealing with fear and stress, except instead of this being a horror movie, it was their real life.
When you’re faced with death, torture, pain, suffering and other external conflicts (that are out of your control), the option for humor and laughter seems like the most rational. As Thomas Kuhlm said,
“[Humor] offers a way of being sane in an insane place.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and international lockdown seem like an insane place, making this topic the perfect opportunity for humor.
And then there were covid memes…
At the very core of memes is rapid-truthing at its best. With only an image and limited room for characters, there is no other choice than to get your point across as succinctly as possible. Memes have structure: the image (which has a predetermined meaning) plus the syntax help convey your point much faster. Voila: rapid-truthing.
The image you choose for your meme pretty much determines the underlying message you’re trying to convey:
|Grumpy cat (you’re unhappy about something trivial)
|Distracted boyfriend (shiny object syndrome)
|Woman yelling at cat (different opinions)
|Success kid (celebrating small wins)
|That would be great (asking to do something simple)
And many, many, many more.
In her paper, Watson explains,
“There’s a structural reason people might laugh at [the joke], and that’s a cognitive reaction to incongruity. Human brains trained in pattern recognition quickly spot pattern disruption and jump to the startle response of laughter.”
This also validates the notion of why memes are so popular and funny – they interrupt our expected patterns or schemas. Because memes are so commonplace nowadays, we know to expect the formula that comes with the different types, be it [ image + caption = funny ]. It’s the interruption of this pattern that brings about the humor in memes, and it’s why it always feels like new when you see a different version of an old meme.
To me, it’s clear: using laughter to cope with an ongoing pandemic during a worldwide quarantine is the way that many of us are choosing to deal with an absurd and incredible situation no one ever believed would happen in our lifetime.
This makes me laugh probably more than it should… because who in our lifetime thought you’d ever be able to say these words and mean them?
The use of memes as a conduit for humor is likely due to the medium’s ability to rapidly expose and acknowledge the truth, which allows us to confront the numerous ways in which our lives have been altered: working from home, kids at home, video calls, how to wash your hands, social distancing and quarantine, not the apocalypse you expected, new schedules, drinking, baking (sourdough), COVID-19 and coronavirus, toilet paper. There’s even a subgroup of memes wherein the words to common songs are being adapted to these events.
Do Re Mi — COVID 19 version of The Sound of Music classic
Do I Have the COVID Virus? (Barenaked Ladies — If I had A Million Dollars)
The Singing Dentist’s CO-V-I-D (aka Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice)
Hello (From the Inside) — Chris Mann’s parody of Adele’s song
“Being off-balance can make us laugh, and sometimes laughing is what keeps us from falling over.” Professor Katie Watson, Gallows Humor in Medicine.
The ability to laugh is the only thing keeping (most of us) sane during these particularly challenging times, especially since we don’t know how long it will take before life can go back to normal (or what the new normal looks like).
More than that, memes and humor are giving us the ability to bond as a community no matter where in the world we are because we’re all in this together (this is the first of two times I will ever say those words as it relates to the pandemic). Although we are all experiencing the pandemic slightly differently, we all share this commonality, and thus we are all in on the joke.
No, the deaths and the incredible suffering are not a laughing matter, but that’s not exactly what the memes are suggesting. We’re joking about the scary fact that the world has changed, likely, for the foreseeable future.
Cohen recognizes this: “When we laugh at a true absurdity, we simultaneously confess that we cannot make sense of it and that we accept it. Thus laughter is an expression of our humanity, our finite capacity, our ability to live with what we cannot understand or subdue. We can dwell within the incomprehensible without dying from fear or going mad.”
And is there anything more absurd than living through a pandemic in 2020? Memes have truly helped us all grow as a community, communicate our difficulties and show that we really are all in this together.
Take your daily dose of memes and call me in the morning.
Oh, and here you go…
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