LOLCats, post-modernism, and (self-) referential humor

Jonathan Coulton: I do think the common thread that a lot of internet culture shares is a kind of hyper-postmodernism. I barely know what I’m talking about here so bear with me, but you know I think there’s a kind of humor, in particular, that is unique to the Internet and it has to do with referencing other things in an ironic way, in re-imagining them in a certain way, recycling ideas. Of course this is part of what postmodernism means, but I think there’s sort of winky aspect to the things that become really popular in internet culture that sort of sits on top of that standard postmodernism, you know, collage combination of different ideas. Look at LOLCats for example. Which is bizarre and could only exist on the Internet and is, I think a real good measuring device for determining if somebody is part of internet culture or not. You know, they’re basically funny pictures of cats, with a caption you know. And so you can say, well that’s dumb, that’s you know there are lots of greeting cards that are like that. We’ve had that for a long time. But there’s a self-referential quality to LOLCats and it’s the language that cats speak, somehow, it’s this kind of pigeon language that cats speak and it kind of makes sense. I mean, if you’re a fan of LOLCats, the reason you like it is because you see a caption and a funny picture and yes, you are looking at a funny caption of a funny cat picture, but also there’s a joke there and it’s very hard to explain what that joke is to somebody who doesn’t get it. And it has to do with that language that cats speak, that is made up, that somehow a very large group of strangers all seems to agree that this is the language that cats speak. And so, I sound like a lunatic just talking about it. And that is, I think, a perfect example of the things that become popular on the Internet and why, even though I haven’t really said why because I don’t even know why. 

Thanks to @siracusa for pointing this out. Note that this is a transcript from a video interview, and not necessarily reflective of Jonathan Coulton’s prose style or even spelling of “pidgin.” Grr.

Anyway, this segment collided in my brain with what Noel Murray has been grappling with in multiple “A Very Special Episode” columns that I read recently, namely ones on MST3K and especially The Simpsons. This fragment from the former steps a little closer to what’s so utterly compelling about referential, highly-specific humor:

That’s reflective of the whole Mystery Science Theater 3000 ethos. The show featured a barrage of pop-culture references, drawing on movies, music, sports, television, commercials, comics, children’s books, and more, with a good mix of old and new. When I watched Episode 403 for the first time, my eyes popped the moment Mike Nelson appeared as Morrissey, because I wasn’t expecting a Morrissey joke in a cheap, science-fiction-y basic-cable show. Nor was I expecting the show to drop references to Goodfellas, Muppet Babies, Ray J. Johnson, Mel Tillis, and perennially disappointing NFL quarterback Jay Schroeder. The writers free-associated, and if their free-associations jarred one viewer’s memory, they’d made a new fan. In some ways, MST3K is the ultimate example of what I referred to in my Simpsons “Very Special Episode” column as “laughing at the known.” Quite often, the references on MST3K were funny to me only because I “got it.” And when they referred to something I’d never heard of, I didn’t laugh. 

And that reminds me of the person who introduced me to Mystery Science Theater 3000. My girlfriend at the time, she mocked my occasionally goofy sense of humor, especially my favorite joke ever. I had the last laugh (and MST3K burrowed its way deep into my heart) when the episode featuring “Wild Rebels” referenced the punchline, “Silly Rabbi, kicks are for Trids!”

Anyway, it all forms part of what the web, blogs, Twitter, and meeting new people are about for me. I’ve thought of myself as alone-in-my-head for so long (being an oddball geek growing up, discovering my own particular tastes for myself, often by myself) that it’s utterly compelling to find a common point of reference. For that reference to make its way through the gauntlet of mass media to broadcast, well, that in itself is laugh-out-loud-worthy. Twitter? Dozens of little points of connection, every day.