Taking the dive into chaotic Gen Z humor

We’ve heard it before – Gen Z humor is weird. It’s unpredictable. It’s a bit depressing. But there’s a method to this madness – some ways to organize and label the different manifestations of Gen Z’s humor. To begin to understand our sense of humor, we need to understand some of the most common, most popular types of memes.

Many of the most enduring memes are on topics related to kids – bear with me here. While other memes die out after a while, too esoteric to ever resurface, memes involving cartoon characters from kids shows seem to be evergreen. Particular images and scenes might fall out of use after a while, but people don’t seem to get tired of using the same character but in different situations. Think about characters like Spongebob, Shrek, Tom and Jerry, Peppa Pig, and so on. Why do these characters survive? Why do people keep on finding them so funny?

Part of the reason is, of course, that so many people are familiar with these characters and that we have fond memories of them. Most of us enjoyed watching these characters as kids; they were entertaining then and are entertaining now, so it makes sense that we enjoy jokes that reference them. What is interesting is that these characters are what most of our generation holds in common. As we get older, our tastes develop in different directions, but when we are young, we all like similar things. Funny that our love for these cartoon characters is practically a universal generational trait.

These characters are what most of our generation holds in common. As we get older, our tastes develop in different directions, but when we are young, we all like similar things.”

Another less tangible reason is that these characters are often put in unexpected situations. The humor is thus derived from irony. Unlike characters such as Tom and Jerry, which had some morbid humor that older audiences would enjoy, characters targeted towards younger audiences can become a meme if someone takes advantage of their simplicity. If you find Peppa Pig funny now as a meme, she isn’t funny because she or the show she’s from are truly funny; most of us can agree that, with the exception of a few moments, they’re not. People find her funny because of the ironic spin we’ve put on her. The parts that are funny to older audiences – unexpected sassy moments from Peppa – become accentuated and turned into reaction images for adult situations. And “adult” doesn’t necessarily mean mature content. The situation can be some mundane activity that kids would never experience but that is relatable to adults, and that’s what makes it funny. Posts describing experiences with scam callers and bad dates are accompanied by a picture of Peppa abruptly hanging up the phone. The image makes the meme funny not just because the original hanging up the phone scene in the show was funny, but because it is an instance of comedic incongruity. 

This irony is consistent with much of Peppa’s memes – people take clips out of her show and visually distort them, overlaying dialogue to make things funny out of sheer absurdity. Because the odd editing and manipulation of dialogue is something that doesn’t belong in a kids show, people find memes like this funny.

In short, with many popular memes that use cartoon characters for the punchline, we laugh not just because the picture perfectly encapsulates the relatable situation, but often because of the subtly satisfying irony from seeing these cartoon characters in unexpected situations; these cartoons are out of place in the context of adult experiences, which makes things funnier.

What’s interesting is that other popular types of memes mock certain types of kids and childish behavior in general. Think of memes that mock certain 14 year olds who think that their thoughts are “deep” and that they’re intellectuals for parroting messages of “society is bad”. Mockery of children has even affected our generation’s way of speaking. In relatively recent times, people would say “no u” not just online but in real life as a joke to refer to the weak comebacks kids use. People would also use the joke “joe mama”, a reference to the ridiculous way that kids “dominate” other kids. Or say “oof” as a reference to – and I can’t believe I’m putting this word in a Ripples article – Roblox and the noise associated with a character dying in the game.

So why does our generation fixate on kids so much? Isn’t that kind of pitiful? Maybe it happens because one of the easiest and most forgivable groups to mock is children, since being a child is temporary. Though making fun of children’s mistakes can be mean and even wrong in some cases, we see making fun of children as acceptable since their blunders come from childish inexperience and immaturity. Childish mistakes don’t necessarily reflect some unfortunate permanent condition that shouldn’t be mocked; children grow out of these things. They make a mistake and it’s hilarious, and we feel it’s fine to make fun of them since hey, they’re kids! We did dumb things too when we were kids! So when we make fun of children, we in essence make fun of ourselves and the ridiculous things we used to do, in keeping with the self-deprecating humor of Gen Z.

When we make fun of children, we in essence make fun of ourselves and the ridiculous things we used to do, in keeping with the self-deprecating humor of Gen Z.”

And oh, self-deprecating humor. I’ll have to keep my comments brief to prevent this from becoming a full-blown doctoral dissertation, since there’s so much to say about our generation making fun of itself. We love to poke fun at ourselves. I have no statistics to confirm whether this is caused in part by rising mental health instability or not, but a causal relationship isn’t unlikely. Joking around like this arguably led to the popular style of editing content which people tend to attribute to Vine and Emma Chamberlain – exaggerated use of iMovie effects (especially the comedic zoom) to distort visuals and audio. This style of editing is another form of self-deprecation, irony, and even a subtle mockery of childish behavior – the editing is purposefully so bad that it’s good. 

We Gen Z-er’s love irony. Isn’t that part of the reason that Tik Tok blew up? Though at first the app was widely scorned, people flocked to it to make fun of the attention seekers and children who first joined it, making ironic videos that drew more people. So much of what we love is out of irony; this is indicative of the common effort of people on the internet to be self-aware. At the bottom of the food chain, we have those who are the least self aware – often corporations trying to make themselves relevant with memes – and at the top, we have the apex predators that are on so many levels of irony that we don’t even know what’s serious and what isn’t. When something is so painfully self-unaware, it gets ridiculed and bullied until either the thing becomes self-aware or until it gets completely obliterated. Think of the Sonic the Hedgehog live-action movie trailer when it first came out – the animation was so deep in the uncanny valley and it seemed that the creators weren’t even aware of how awful it was. If this bizarre version of Sonic had broken the fourth wall and had made fun of himself and the bad animation, people would have backed off a bit, recognizing the ironic, self-imposed “so bad it’s good” situation. But since this movie had the audacity to present such a terrible design without showing any sign of self-awareness, people couldn’t let it go – they had to teach the creators a lesson, ridiculing it until Sony pushed back the release date, redesigned the character, and reanimated the character in the entire movie.

So much of what we love is out of irony; this is indicative of the common effort of people on the internet to be self-aware.”

So, given the intrinsically public quality of the internet, where every step you take is potentially recorded and scrutinized, employing ironic, self-deprecating humor in a way protects people; this is especially the case for content creators. This way, if you make a mistake online, people notice it less – maybe you were being ironic. Even if it was clear that you weren’t being ironic, you can make fun of yourself anyway to deflect most of the criticism from the internet public shaming mafia – it’s not as fun to expose people if they’ve already exposed themselves.

We’ve discussed kids, mockery, irony and self-awareness, and these likely aren’t large enough umbrellas to describe every aspect of Gen Z’s humor and memes. But it is interesting that the way we make jokes can function as a defense response, an indicator of our mental states, and even as a way to unite us.