One of my favourite things about art is that it gives us language. I can describe someone as the Superman of computer programmers, and you’ll have a general idea – most likely, a highly skilled programmer beyond what most people can be expected to be, and perhaps a nice person on top of that. Regular readers may remember my muted reaction to the show I Think You Should Leave, Tim Robinson’s acclaimed Netflix sketch comedy show; what is interesting to me is that I very much enjoy all the references to it that have popped up. If Robinson has a genius, it’s in creating phrases and imagery that nobody has ever used before and that stick in the mind. My issue is mainly that Robinson generally throws these at the viewer without any regard to pacing; my tastes in comedy are very very classical (start with a setup and follow it with a punchline, then repeat until dead). But his fans keep taking his imagery and using it within more traditional witty structures as a shorthand. The single most popular and iconic image from the show is Robinson in a hotdog suit saying “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this!”, used as a retort to people loudly complaining about a problem they caused, but my favourite is him in the old man make-up on “Prank Show”. It amazes me how immediately and widely applicable “Get all this shit off me. I can’t breathe,” has been.
It’s comparable to the way The Simpsons, Futurama, William Shakespeare, 30 Rock, or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia have given us so much comedic language to express our absurd situations. There’s two principles about this that I notice emerge. First, they give us images and sentences nobody has ever used before. We have talked here about originality being overrated, but if one wants to invent language, one has to chase words nobody has ever used before. I might complain about Robinson’s complete lack of structure, but his willingness to follow a ridiculous image so much further than anyone and smash it to bits until every strange, unexplored idea falls out of it means he finds these brilliant and unique phrasings. The second is that new language has to describe a familiar idea – a new method for old objectives, you might say.
I’m amused by people insisting that reality itself has degraded as TV has becomes more like 30 Rock when the really obvious – as in, if I were a different and less empathetic person I would say “I can’t believe this has to be pointed out” obvious – truth is that TV was always like this, you just didn’t have reason to notice until TV journalism has become more in-depth and ubiquitous, which means things like Quibi cross your radar more often. The hotdog guy sketch is so popular because the concept it covers is very straightforward – a guy is lying to cover his own ass despite the fact he is very obviously responsible for the disaster – and its expression is so specific and absurd that it’s funny to compare a liar to hotdog guy, as if to say, “You may as well be wearing a hotdog suit.”
Seinfeld has its own iconic imagery, but what has taken hold in the collective consciousness the most strongly isn’t any specific word but rather the way the characters talk. If ITYSL has given us nouns, verbs, and adjectives, Seinfeld has given us a whole-ass grammar. The genius of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David was in creating a specific patter – short and punchy sentences with a lot of questions and repetition – through which almost any idea could be filtered and interrogated, and the fact that the show was almost entirely about interrogating social mores specifically has even given us a theme to riff on. I’m given to understand that queer Twitter has created a whole mythology out of queer versions of the characters discussing the minutia of queer identities and the way queer people can turn use them as leverage for arguments and oneupmanship. It turns out to be relatively easy to not just mimic the cadence of Seinfeld characters but to use it as a way to process a thought.
(Always Sunny has a similar thing going on where the characters are so clearly laid out that writing fanfiction of them is criminally easy – especially because the characters can be expected to jockey with each other for power, giving the writer a clear conflict. This was inspired partly by a Twitter thread about the Gang going to AnthroCon that I unfortunately cannot seem to locate)
That’s really what art-as-language is about – processing a thought. Meme culture likes to think of itself as a recent innovation in human history, but aside from absurdist humour having roots in the dadaist movement of the Thirties, it’s almost one of the basest human impulses to take a familiar image and break it, and the only difference is that the world seems to have more people in it to share that process with. I continue to be fascinated by how fandom has industrialised the process of taking in new imagery from new stories and using it as fodder for fanfiction – who will be the latest person to take up the role of sad angsty guy and his cheerful dad-like friend? Similarly, what has become a minor scourge in the past decade of political discussion has been people who apparently can only understand the world through Harry Potter references, with Political Leader You Don’t Like being Voldemort and Political Leader You Do Like being Dumbledore, which if nothing else has infuriated people with its complete lack of taste (“I’m begging you please read another book”). Of course, I can’t feel too judgmental of them just in theory considering how much of my worldview is shaped by ideas and processes I picked up from fiction; the sense of humour of The Simpsons or M*A*S*H, the dynamics of power and masculinity of The Shield, the gleeful queerness of Rocky Horror Picture Show. These are the things fiction can give us.