Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Satire and Spreading Memes

I have been reading about internet memes and how and why derivative and satirical works get spread on the internet in preparation for a panel I am going to be on at CONvergence/SkepchickCon next week. It is an interesting topic I had never thought that deeply about. I am not looking at the comparison of memes to actual genetics as Dawkins might, but more at how and why certain ideas get copied, mimicked and spread in our culture and why people just like you and me are inclined to enter into the discussion via spreading our own derivative work.

Often times a piece of art or a youtube video or other bit of information spreads because it is originally introduced by an average person and then other average people feel welcome to enter into the (often) online conversation because they feel they are on the same level as the presenter of the original bit of information. In other words, we are more likely to copy or make fun of something that we feel is either on our level within our perceived peer group, or we feel superior to it. So you are more likely to create a derivative YouTube video of just some guy dancing in his underpants than you are of Michael Jackson dancing on a professionally run sound-stage. In part, this is because amateur production with webcams and at home set design is usually much easier to copy than professional productions. This of course isn’t always the case, as some professional products and productions lend themselves to mimicking and mockery (See sweded.) But in general, if the guy down the block can record it or make it in his bedroom, you probably can too and this leads to a higher number of derivative works and therefor a wider conversation and spreading of information started from one single event in the online community. Another interesting fact is that online memes are more likely to spread if they are funny or have some essence of humor that is based on gender traits such as flawed masculinity or if it evokes some other sense of superiority in the viewer.

So why do I bring this up? Probably because I have been reading about the topic and as someone with an interest in spreading information I have also stumbled upon an interesting couple of questions that relate to this blog specifically.

Many of the writers on this blog speak out for equal rights, feminism, atheism (and other hot-button topics) and in doing so open themselves up to various forms of critique and in many cases, outright harassment. Many of us have been parodied, satirized and mocked. Much of it has been downright vicious and from my view, totally uninspired, lazy and unfunny. Yet I am completely and totally amused with the satirical work of writer Mike Booth and actor Jeremiah McDonald with their “Dan Cardamon” YouTube series. It is a satire of the Men’s Rights Movement within atheism. Here is Mike and Jeremiah’s latest video:

I love this project. It takes the anger, arrogance, disregard for facts and apparent lack of self-awareness of the MRA movement and packages it as a funny and witty media project. Plus, the acting, writing and production is (in my opinion) really well done. It’s not lazy, yet has the appearance of just being an average Vlog that any average person could engage with. It is entertaining and accessible.

But why is it so funny to me when I find most other parodies on this issue terrible? Is it because it points out that these are just average, flawed humans that we can easily respond to in our own bedrooms with a cheap webcam? Is it funny to me because it makes me feel superior? Is it funny because Mike and Jeremiah have managed to make professionally produced videos that are satire yet they don’t outright insult or hurt anyone? Is it just funny because I feel like I am in on the joke?

What do you guys think? What makes good satire? What makes an internet meme primed for derivative work or parody and why do I love Dan Cardamon so much?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

*featured image from the Dan Cardamon video linked above.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. In this particular piece, I think that the acting stands out. He looks sincere, and one has to listen closely to realize that it is, indeed satire. Weak satire, the kind that isn’t funny spends effort to signal to the listener “Do you get the joke?” With the Cardamon series, I don’t see that.

  2. As someone who writes satire, I think good satire should these qualities. First, it should have an element of truth to it. Most of the works I’ve seen aimed at Skepchick lack this. For example making a picture of Rebecca Watson worshiping at the cross of Atheism+ doesn’t work because she’s not involved and has been critical of A+. Second, if it punches, it should punch up. In my case, I will write about the mayor of Bolingbrook, IL. He commands a police force, has a law firm that does both his personal and village business, and has packed almost all levels of local government with his supporters. He’s the most powerful man in Bolingbrook, as well as a public figure. He can take it when I criticize him. An unknown resident, however, is a different story. Then satire would appear to be beating down on a person who really can’t fight back. Which leads to the next quality. Don’t be mean spirited. Sure, it can be harsh, but good satire shouldn’t resort to attacks on a person’s race or other innate qualities. That’s where a lot of the satire against Skepchick and other secular feminists fails. Making fun of someone’s chronic illness isn’t funny or making a valid point.

    Good satire is hard to do, and I don’t always get it right. It is, however, too easy to string insults together and call it “satire.”

    1. I think “punch up” is a great way to put it. It’s extremely hard to make fun of members of oppressed groups successfully. Much better to satirize members of the dominant group, which often “deserves” it more anyway. Similar to the Rachel / Paula situation.

      Also, the pony in the background *totally* makes this video.

  3. I think an essential part of good satire is moral outrage. And this requires that you actually have a morality — a real sense of right and wrong that’s strong enough to make you want to sit down and write something in poison ink. Good satire takes the immoral things that people get a pass on and exaggerates them just enough to expose how immoral they are. Swift’s “Modest Proposal” worked because he simply took English society’s blatant callousness about the sufferings of the Irish and took it to the next “logical” step, and everyone could see the connection, even the people who were happy to let the Irish starve or be exploited to death.

    One reason so much supposed satire nowadays is garbage is because there isn’t any real moral sense at the bottom of it. Either it’s just trashing for the sake of trashing, or it’s based on some BS imitation of morality. News flash: morality can’t be faked.

    The reason “punching down” doesn’t work is because kicking someone when they’re down (especially if you do it _because_ they’re down) is just plain wrong, and even the people who do it know it at some level. “Punching up” works so often because the targets are people with power, and people with power usually abuse it, and it’s the abuse that’s an appropriate (and natural) target of satire.

    1. DebGod,

      It kind of made me jump as well. I think the video would have been better without that. If it was supposed to be a joke of some kind, I didn’t get it.

      1. They have done that sort of effect to varying degrees on all on all of their videos. I like it. I’m not sure what the actual intent by the creators is, but to me it represents the horror that these people really are. They are actually saying and doing some evil shit and it seeps out into view now and then. From an artistic standpoint, I give it an A. Also, it reminds me of Flight Club which is my favorite movie. :)

        1. Amy,

          Maybe that’s what they intended to do, and that would explain it, however, I still don’t think its very funny, and these are supposed to be parodies.

  4. Amy

    That’s was pretty funny, except for the parts where he was supposed to be having video problems and his face turned into a giant mouth. I didn’t get the point of that. It looked like something out of a horror movie. It wasn’t funny, it was just startling.

    As for TJ, I’d have a lot more respect for him, if he didn’t do stuff like belittle rape victims and diss feminists

  5. I’ve seen all sorts of discussions about “why some sorts of political humor are funny and some aren’t.” However, they all kind of seem to come down to “There is such a thing as being objectively funny, and our side is doing it while their side isn’t.” While conservative attempts at humor leave me just as unamused as anybody, a sense of fairness makes me wonder if a lot of this is just self-justification — after all, their side does the exact same thing. Somebody like Ann Coulter makes me sick to my stomach, but to people who agree with her she’s a laugh riot.

    Take the bit about “punching down.” Remember, to an MRA, making fun of women IS punching up — women are the ones with the power, and men are their hapless victims. The reality doesn’t matter — it’s how they perceive the world. Likewise, I’m pretty sure that bigots who tell racist jokes feel threatened and outnumbered by other races. So sure, we could argue that their premises are false — but if we argue that, because their premises are false, their humor isn’t “really” funny, we may be going a step too far.

    I think that the quest for “objective funny” is probably a lost cause. If such a thing existed, wouldn’t there be occasions where we would say, “Wow, even though that cartoon is completely on the opposite side of the political fence from me, it’s still hilarious”? In my experience, that doesn’t happen. Maybe an experiment would be looking at people who changed their political outlook on an issue, and looking to see if things they thought were funny on one side of the fence are still funny once they’ve jumped it. My suspicion would be no.

    1. Except that people can rationalize just about anything. While your experiment might show one result or another, I’m sure there are lots of jokes that people once found funny were still funny because they changed what they felt the joke meant or what they thought the political opinions of the person telling the joke were to make them closer to their own opinions. So whatever the results of your experiment, I’m sure there would be lots of exceptions.

      The thought process might be something like “He might think he’s a right-winger, but if I just could talk to him, I’m sure he would soon realize he was really on our side after all, and had just bought into their propaganda that they are the true defenders of liberty rather than the defenders of power, privilege and wealth. So right-wing comedian X is still funny, he just doesn’t understand why. And that’s probably why I thought he was funny when I was a right-winger, before I saw the light. I saw a kindred spirit in him.” Of course, this also assumes the existence of funny right-wing comedians. ;-)

      Also, the other half of the experiment would be jokes that the person didn’t used to find funny that they now think are hilarious.

      BTW, my theoretical understanding of humor comes from my niece, who when she was six, observed “There are two kinds of jokes. There are jokes where you say something funny about somebody, and there are jokes where you do something funny to somebody.” My brother replied, “Yes, Julia. Those are called ‘practical jokes’.” “Yes,” she said, “and they are hilarious!

  6. Spot on writing, well acted, good audiovideo and editing, and … the hat is perfect.

    I didn’t get the mouth thing either but I think once it is explained it will have been funny.

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