In 1911, the San Francisco Examiner published a guide titled: “How to Make Really Funny Jokes.” According to author Professor Korski, a true joke is a “very pleasant absurdity contrasting with one’s habitual expectation.” A joke does not “merely cause laughter.” “Falling downstairs” is not a joke. A joke is not “unpleasant, repellent, offensive, horrid, ugly, painful, insane, freakish, natural, solemn, stupid, or meaningless.”
Had the professor time-travelled to 2019, with our beloved meaningless, stupid, and slapstick loops, gifs, and memes, he might be appalled. Where Korski might agree with netizens of the future, though, is his observation that “a joke is only a joke when it is adapted to the training, ideas, and surroundings of those who hear it.”
As evidence of Professor Korski’s thesis, take this Civil War joke from Vanity Fair circa 1885, via Cameron C. Nickels’s Civil War Humour, about mass amputations:
“In drilling recruits without Arms, it is not necessary to give them any instructions with regard to the disposal of their hands.”
And another from World War One, on wounded soldiers:
The melancholy youth was lying in the hospital bed entertaining his visitors with tales of the battlefield.
“Yes,” he said, almost tearfully, “I have had a rough time. I was once so riddled with bullets the fellows behind me complained of the draft.”
And another from World War Two, on the Third Reich:
“Why does Hitler always sit in the front row when he goes to a theatre?” “Because that is the only place where he has the people behind him.”
They’re not funny, because that’s the thing about jokes, and period-specific jokes, especially: they have no life beyond their immediate circumstances. And this brings me to the question of why, in 2019, a generation of teens finds American and European history so funny.
On TikTok, you can find a delightful collection of DIY #history parodies set to hip hop, Soviet anthems, and Rick and Morty sound bytes, shot in dorm rooms on iPhones, with TikTok text stickies indicating the date and event. (TikTok is an app for teens in which users can pair up to 15 seconds of video to samples from pop music or self-recorded audio, which is common knowledge at the time of this writing, but given the lifespan of apps–R.I.P. Vine–I feel it necessary to explain.).
Teens and twenty-somethings (mostly dudes) use the tools God gave them–Nerf guns, washcloths for wigs, a flashcard marked “HAT”–to depict bickering nations at war, colonial invasion, and institutional racism in America. (Costumes vary in realism, but a high-quality World War I uniform suffices just as well as a bedsheet for a Medieval shawl.) They’re often one-man shows, switching camera angles to signal different characters.
They range from both hilariously weird one-liners to sobering commentary: in one, a 16th-century layman, voiced by Spongebob, shrieks against the backdrop of a Catholic church when Martin Luther, voiced by Patrick, interjects “I know: Let’s leave!” In the next, an African in 1400 is interrupted from his hunt when a series of European countries dance through the door to Lil Keed’s “It’s Up Freestyle.”
The civil rights movement features prominently: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and John Lewis have a dance party in hoodies, and a guy labelled “white guy” walks in on Rosa Parks sitting on a chair in the bedroom to the lyric “get the fuck up.” (The caption is “Its a joke.”)
Sometimes they’re off-colour, like Anne Frank sneezing in a closet while a Nazi hunts for her downstairs. Sometimes they’re funny in the implicit acknowledgment that our forebears perished on the shores of Normandy so we can make TikToks about them from our bedrooms.
I find most of this very funny in some cases because understanding history requires time and reading. We have no patience for a hundred Raddymery talys of Shakespearian humour; we have about 15 seconds to make a point and move on. Some are also pointedly not funny (or not totally farcical) in that American history is extremely racist.
“Those weren’t trying to be commentary, they’re just funny,” David aka @d.mugger, told me about his civil rights videos. His most popular #history101, memes a comatose white kid in 1954 wearing earbuds in his nose signalling oxygen tubes–cut to a line of black students walking through the bedroom door. “I think I came up with that one when I was driving and almost hit a median. Then I thought about how medians separate people and immediately thought about segregation.”
He added, surprisingly: “Obviously, the way things are now, someone’s going to get offended. But if they do, it’s their fault, because that’s history, and that’s the way things work.”
Others appreciate the finer nuances of the early 20th-century global political relations.
“The Iron Curtain is a theme I’m developing at the moment,” 17-year-old Raddy Daddy reflected over video chat with Gizmodo. Raddy Daddy, aka, Ryan (IRL) sits upright with a mug in one hand, the other arm draped over a couch cushion. He riffs for a bit on the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Regime post-World War II, then pivots briefly to the parallels between the Cold War and the current state of politics.
“I think that in the American education system, you get a lot of the textbook stuff and dates, but you really don’t dive into the deeper meaning of things,” he observes. TikTok, for him, is a vehicle for personifying the characters in historical narratives. (He’s also a theatre buff and collects various authentic military uniforms which feature prominently in his videos.) He considers his work more of an educational mission than a comedic one.
But this is a lot of time for a Millennial to make a meandering point about 15-second clips. History is written by the victors, and the victors write the jokes. The teens have vanquished the Millennials, who will blog about the teens for the teens to come.