Coronavirus memes: visual banter

There’s much that is positive in the abundance of coronavirus comic memes: in their assertions of shared experience and collectivity they clearly do provide a degree of relief. But as units of communication to be exchanged and circulated, they are often only placeholders for real emotion or feeling. Given that the experiences of strain, anger, and boredom generated by the quarantine are often acute, too acute to be safely shared with any real honesty in extended social groups (social media networks, WhatsApp groups), the material tends to gesture towards those feelings without summoning their intensity. Many of those memes about drinking and eating too much, about irritation with family, the trials of working from home, can seem merely a form of visual banter: determinedly superficial and indeed actively resistant to real communication or acknowledgement. In this respect, they are similar to other humorous cultural productions which deal in generic or sanitised emotion; statement T-shirts, fridge magnets, greeting cards.

One recent video has targeted this emotional dishonesty with satisfying precision: Ivor Baddiel’s Twitter video, posted with the words, ‘Adorable moment man interrupted by his son on live TV’. Mid interview and his son walks in, and Baddiel snarls, “Fuck off I’m on live telly … fuck off you little twat” before turning back to the camera and composing himself; pleasant expression back in place and ready to continue the interview. Framed as an authentic clip, with a recognisable newscaster as interviewer, at first sight the bit seems convincingly ‘real’, especially given a quarantine context in which working from home has led to several instances of children interrupting live interviews. Satirising the tendency to sentimentalise these very public occasions, the reality effect of the sketch parodies the process of circulating such memes: the collective decision to render them ‘adorable moments.’ The skit insists instead on the dark, repressed elements of these junctures of intense tension between professional and domestic life, and asserts the ugly reality of parenting, rather than the pretence of perfection. And that honesty offers real relief.

We can see the video as part of a larger impulse towards the comic correction of cultural hypocrisy, and when that hypocrisy is presented under the guise of humour, there is a sense in which comedians are policing their own boundaries, demarking ‘good’ comedy from ‘bad’ humour. In John Robins’s Netflix special The Darkness of Robins, for example, there is a bit which is reminiscent of Baddiel’s video in its use of ‘bad’ humour as both the butt of the joke and the means for producing the incongruity that makes bleak honesty funny. Robins states with total clarity and conviction: ‘I would rather drink alone for the rest of time than spend my life sober amongst people’. Pause. ‘I’m considering having that put on a fridge magnet. You know those kooky fridge magnets that say stuff like, “Is it gin o’clock?”, “I like cooking with wine, sometimes I put it in food”. Well I just want one of those to have the courage of its convictions: “I would rather drink alone for the rest of time than spend my life sober amongst people”. Then at the bottom there’s a woman from the 50s going like that [he sticks his bum up and smiles perkily].’

The same comic contrast between bleak realism and conventional niceties is at work in episode 1 of Tim Renkow’s BBC 3 series ‘Jerk’, when the protagonist is interviewed for a job with a greeting card company, ‘Anarchy Hamster’. Renkow scrawls on a card while waiting for the interview, and the amiable boss (‘Chief lunatic’) picks it up. The original card states: ‘Congratulations on your new poop machine’, but now there’s a brown mess. The boss looks puzzled and Renkow shrugs, “the baby’s done a big shit”. “What’s the red?” “There’s blood in his stool…not a good sign.” Cut to shot of the boss looking horrified.

Renkow is clearly aware that this kind of aggressive realism is not socially viable – his character after all, is a ‘jerk’. And a certain amount of dishonesty is an absolute social necessity, with any ripping away of conventional niceties a privilege often only won through comic license. But it is vital to have it called out as dishonesty in order that we feel less alone in our failure and inadequacy.

© Emma Sullivan 2020.

1 thought on “Coronavirus memes: visual banter”

  1. Emma,

    I became aware of Suki Spangles’ satirical poetry a couple of years ago. He isn’t mainstream at all, hardly known outside poetry circles. He, so far, has published four poems on Covid-19, uploading three of them to his new spoken word YouTube site:

    1.Love In The Time Of Corona

    2. It Started With A Viral

    3. London, Beta-Testing The Zombie Apocalypse



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