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Tyranny of Yuks

The social pressures of a comedy-obsessed generation.

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It was 1995 when Nick Hornby, writing in the voice of Rob Fleming, the protagonist of the novel High Fidelity, penned the credo for Generation X: “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” Of course, the taste that mattered most to Hornby, the record-store-owning Rob, and Gen-X twentysomethings like me was musical taste. There are many things that attracted me to the woman I’d eventually marry, but I must confess that when we started dating in the late nineties, the fact that she shared my appreciation of Will Oldham’s warbling was kind of a big deal. Thirteen years and two children later, I shudder to think how different my life might have been had Claire listened to Sarah McLachlan.

These days, twentysomethings find their matchmaker (or dealbreaker) in a different medium. According to a new study commissioned by Comedy Central, what Millennials, especially Millennial men, value most is humor. “Comedy is so central to who they are, the way they connect with other people, the way they get ahead in the world,” an executive from the network’s parent company told the New York Times. “One big takeaway is that unlike previous generations, humor, and not music, is their No. 1 form of self-expression.” But because of the criteria in question, this is more than a simple swap. By choosing funniness as their obsession, young people have raised the social stakes.

For all that Gen-Xers fetishized musical taste, no actual musical ability was required; just as Clement Greenberg didn’t have to know how to paint to recognize the genius of Jackson Pollock, we didn’t have to master (or even play) a musical instrument in order to be music snobs. Our taste was about appreciating, not doing. But humor isn’t nearly so circumscribed. For members of the current generation, it’s not just about sharing favorite comedians; it’s also about their own ability to generate laughs. In the Comedy Central survey, 56 percent of them claimed to be just as funny as today’s professional comics. That makes their credo something like this: “What really matters is what you like and what you are like.”

At first glance, this focus on substance over mere preferences sounds appealing. Then again, I think back to when I was in college—right around the time that Hornby was writing High Fidelity—and some of my friends were heavy into improv. They were a pretty hilarious bunch. They were also exhausting, turning any and all social situations into comedic skits, each of them trying to out-funny me and everyone else in the room. Granted, I could be similarly competitive when I tried to out-indie someone during a discussion of musical tastes. But we had to be talking about music. My improv friends didn’t need any such precondition. The constant threat of comedic one-upmanship ultimately drove me back to my dorm room, where I could listen to music and gaze at my shoes in peace.

With 73 percent of the Millennials in the Comedy Central study saying any topic is fair game for comedic fodder, it really is Improv Everywhere for twentysomethings now. Maybe it’s just my age talking, but you do wonder: Does it hurt to laugh that much?

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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