Millennials have killed comedy with smartphones, dank memes and political correctness — or so goes an exceedingly popular dog whistle masquerading as theory. And like all weak sauce faux-theories, it is helped in no small measure by the ringing endorsements of old white men, in this case comedic titans such as Mel Brooks and Jerry Seinfeld.
I mean, sure, our college years were dominated by a worldwide economic depression and now our 30s are being defined by a pandemic (with a second depression as garnish). Our income levels have been near-stagnant for eons even as politicians, landlords, company bosses and real estate brokers have grown rich and complacent off our misery. Our love lives are a ticker-tape parade of facepalm emojis. But, hey, all of that’s no excuse for our maddening lack of mirth.
Old-timers: We are really sorry we didn’t laugh hard enough (or at all) at your rib-ticklers. You know which ones — those classic witticisms that surely, 100 per cent, without a shadow of doubt, did not intend to dehumanise women and/or minorities. We’ll try harder, I promise.
Meanwhile, what of your own millennial kin? Twenty-something comedians looking to make a mark, are they kowtowing satisfactorily at your altar? Are they playing by the old rules? A pair of Netflix stand-up specials —25-year-old Taylor Tomlinson’s Quarter-Life Crisis and 26-year-old Pete Davidson’s Alive From New York , both released in March — offers some answers about the way forward.
Trust me, I’m a professional
From the very first minute of Quarter-Life Crisis , Tomlinson establishes herself as a true original, unconcerned with the comedic conventions of yore. For example, for comedians who grew up on a Bill Hicks-George Carlin-Richard Pryor diet, confronting or insulting the audience (either wholesale or one at a time) is a way of life. To varying degrees, you can see this in the comedy of a Dave Chapelle or a Bill Burr. It’s the stand-up version of a hazing ritual. Hence Steven Hyde’s iconic LA advisory in That ’70s Show : Never show up late to a Don Rickles show with puffy hair.
Tomlinson, on the other hand, begins on the polar opposite note: She asks an audience member how he’s doing and before they can respond, follows it up with a quick apology. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have singled you out like that. I would hate it if that happened to me,” she says, and points out that she herself is an introvert. Can you imagine Bill Hicks or George Carlin apologising, least of all to the audience?
Elsewhere, she correctly notes that the young parents of her generation apologise to their kids. “Did you know apologies work in that direction?” she asks with unironic incredulity. She caricatures an eager-to-please parent talking to their toddler: “Do you have any feedback for me? Notes? Inputs of any kind? I’d love to hear it”.
This brilliant observation is part of a larger pattern — you could call it the professionalisation of personal spaces. Basically, millennials know what it’s like to approach friendships, romance and, yes, even parenthood with the value-set of the corporate workplace. Literary critic Parul Sehgal recently wrote in The New York Times that fiction no longer seemed interested in the main characters’ love lives, choosing instead to focus on their professional ups and downs.
“(…) there’s no denying that the novel of love, of sex, has recessed. Friendship is ascendant, or parenthood or elegant alienation (see Rachel Cusk). Even in fiction that takes coupling as its subject, as in the novels of Sally Rooney, the characters seem a bit sheepish, as if caught participating in a nostalgic exercise. The drama of the romance hasn’t totally withered away, however; it’s merely migrated. You’ll recognize all the familiar throes — exalted expectations and dashed hopes, disillusionment and embarrassing self-delusion — in fiction about work. Specifically, about late capitalism’s carousel of grinding, precarious labor; see the books of Helen DeWitt, Catherine Lacey, Ling Ma, Hiroko Oyamada and Sayaka Murata.”
Quarter-Life Crisis is full of moments that back up Sehgal’s observation.
For example, here’s Tomlinson explaining to the audience about how she’s “not a good time girl” — she’s not into casual sex, finds dating apps exhausting and so on. After a joke about how she was the “daddy” in a past relationship (she had a savings account and the guy didn’t), she lands the section’s real zinger.
“All my other friends lost their virginity under a Backstreet Boys poster in their mom’s house, and I lost it under an IKEA painting I purchased — with a coupon.”
There’s so much to unpack in this little gem of a punchline. It is a line that works on several levels: That signature millennial ‘funnysad’ tonality, the DIY aesthetic being lampooned (IKEA), the suggestion that for introverts, even rebellion (in this case, her sexual debut) comes after careful calibration (“with a coupon”). The important takeaway, however, is the shift from an impulsive (and therefore risky) model of sex and romance (represented by the Backstreet Boys), to a more deliberate, corporate, hedge-your-bets way.
Hence Tomlinson’s gag about warning her future husband during the wedding ceremony, lest his ‘performance’ of being emotionally overwhelmed fell short of the mark: “We’re gonna go back out there and we’re gonna get it right, aren’t we? Because if you don’t, I’ll make your life a living hell. I could make you cookies every day or I could make you miserable forever. I don’t give a sh*t either way — I just need a project motherf***er!”
Confident, never cocky
Pete Davidson’s special, Alive From New York , isn’t nearly as consistent or as insightful as Quarter-Life Crisis . And, yet, in his own inexplicably charming way, Davidson is effective while articulating the millennial point-of-view on parenting, friendship, romance and sex.
The aforementioned ‘professionalisation of the personal’ looms large here. Towards the beginning of his set, Davidson talks about a friend of his, a man he financially supports. One day, his friend happily informs Davidson that he has some good news. Did you get a job? Well no, the friend says, I’m gonna be a father, I’ve got a kid on the way. Davidson responds: “A kid? That’s like, the opposite of a job”.
Besides, Alive From New York begins with the millennial’s go-to ice-breaker — the workplace anecdote, in this case, the story of how stand-up Louis CK tried to get him fired from Saturday Night Live (Davidson has been a cast member since 2014). CK blew a fuse after he saw Davidson walk away from the studio, visibly high on marijuana. He told Davidson’s boss the young comedian was “smoking away his career” (exactly how firing Davidson would resuscitate his career was unclear).
Davidson says, “At the time, Louis CK was considered to be one of the greatest comedians, probably ever, y’know? At the time.” The double emphasis on “at the time” is Davidson’s way of describing time-dilation in the Internet era. Of course, the tables are turned once CK admits to sexual misconduct in 2017.
The Davidson humour is confident but not complacent and never cocky; it’s a delicate balance but remarkably, Davidson has got it down pat.
No more old faithful
Taken together, Tomlinson, Davidson and other millennial comedians (such as Bo Burnham and John Mulaney) represent a radical shift in the way stand-up comedy is performed — and received. In a way, their rise signals the waning powers of irony in popular culture. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like these comedians never use irony. It’s more like irony is no longer the first line of offence.
These comedians know that their generation is running dangerously short on un-ironic sincerity. Simply put, the people, the institutions and the structures that inspired faith in their parents…simply do not cut it anymore. So whether it’s the scales falling from Davidson’s eyes after his encounter with Louis CK, or Tomlinson talking about the fallibility of her parents (“Hi, here’s my folks — they do what they can”), the song remains the same. Millennials are telling their political leaders, their mentors, their bosses — we do not trust you to do the right thing anymore. So, we will set up our own moral compass, this time from scratch.
A small but revelatory joke in the 25th minute of Quarter-Life Crisis exemplifies this perfectly. Tomlinson is talking about how difficult it is to give yourself a pep talk as an adult. “It is laughable. It’s impossible. You can give yourself a pep talk when you’re a kid, because you still believe in stuff, like Santa, magic and the government. You still think there are forces at work for you. So you can still shadow box in the bathroom mirror and go, like, ‘You’re gonna do it, ’cos you’re great and I believe in you’. But when you’re an adult, you’re just leaning over the sink, going ‘You’re gonna do it, because what other goddamned choice do you have?”
What other choice, indeed?