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ComeDADA for the kids without radishes

| Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Andrea Savage | The Observer

“A radish is a type of nut. It is meat. It is a type of nut. I’ll always remember the first time I had zero left,” she says.

The dorm room, filled wall-to-wall with college students, explodes in laughter.

For the next several months, the students will recite her words, embedding her tragedy of the missing radish into their increasingly nonsensical lexicon.

The above quote, featured in ClickHole’s mockumentary clip “Harrowing: Listen to these People Talk About The First Time They Ran Out of Radishes,” indulges the American public’s emergent absurdist sensibility —  a taste that emanates from the ambiguous zone between the millennial generation and whatever comes after (i.e. the aforementioned college students).

This new American Dada — a comedic style that replaces traditional set-up-to-punch-line jokes with surrealist, nonsensical imagery — rules a cult-like empire within popular culture. Its imperial court includes the likes of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (the Adult Swim masterminds behind “Bedtime Stories,” the “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule”), Nathan Fielder (LA’s leading consultant in absurdist marketing schemes), ClickHole (Buzzfeed’s sardonic evil twin) and Dan Harmon (creator of the hallowed IQ test, “Rick and Morty”).

Swarms of disillusioned young people pledge their loyalty to this strange, often uncomfortable brand of comedy — vocalizing their support via thousands of existentially flavored internet memes.

This comedic movement isn’t anything new. Absurdism and its companion existentialism came into being shortly after the Great War ripped Western Civilization’s aspiring utopia to shreds, leaving the world in a state of chronic shock.

Dadaist art, born at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, initiated the trend toward absurdity with its nonessential pieces and rejection of standard forms. Two years later, Cabaret participant Tristan Tzara captured the character of Dadaism in a written manifesto.

“Every spectator is a plotter, if he tries to explain a word (to know!) From his padded refuge of serpentine calculations, he allows his instincts to be manipulated. Whence the sorrows of a conjugal life. To be plain: The Amusement of Redbellies in the Mills of Empty Skulls. DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING.”

The French philosopher Albert Camus — unable to rationalize the post-war consciousness — also abandoned reason outright. His 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” compared human life to the tragic titular figure who “the gods had condemned to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.” Thus, his twisted philosophy of suicide emerged under the pretense that life was utterly meaningless.

But, as the world wars sunk further into the past, existentialist and absurdist principles fell out of the mainstream. In America, especially, the spirit of Dada gained little traction beyond the oppressed (Ralph Ellison) and the depressed (Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace). American prosperity — its perceived prosperity — assured most its residents that meaning exists.

So, what’s changed? Why has Dadaist philosophy made its vigorous return to American culture?

To answer these questions, we must analyze absurdism’s insatiable consumers — embodied in the archetypal American college student.

College students spend their waking (and sleeping) minutes traversing through liminal space. Dichotomies and ambiguities coarse through their daily functions, corrupting distinctions between fact and fiction.

Because of social media, human relationships — the fundamental source of meaning in the lives of many — has been reduced to mechanics and farce. If pioneering Dadaist Hugo Ball claimed to witness a world in which “men have been confused with machines” back in 1914, then Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter must cause him to turn over in his grave. Young people today quite literally live the Dadaist nightmare. They follow, like and share on the assumption that these statements, delivered to communities of downloaded personalities, establish fully realized relationships — confusing men and women with machines.

Internet-based comedy initiatives like ClickHole, River Clegg (“Pa would hide hundreds of unsalted peanuts around the house the night before Easter, as well as every other night,” one tweet reads) and the gargantuan army of meme artists rush headlong into social media’s robotic and devalued rendition of a community. These comedians saturate the internet with material absurd enough to match social media’s ridiculous mockery of interpersonal communication. While some may see a few thousand likes as a sign of status, those well versed in neo-Dadaism see those same likes as the net value of a wrinkly cartoon frog.

Nathan Fielder exposes the liminal dead zone of the post-millennial career experience. He addresses contemporary young people who graduate from their big-name colleges and gleefully tell employers about how they “went to business school and got really good grades” to get a job as a marketing consultant. He lampoons the very idea of a “marketing management framework” as a problem-solving tool. Fielder, as the star of “Nathan for You,” hatches business plans from deep within the right brain — extravagant concoctions that are equal parts nonsensical and effective. He leads us to question the value of our technical education and the cursory structures of the business world in general.

Tim, Eric and Harmon satirize what may be the darkest liminal region in comedy. Their works speak to the injustices — gun violence, terrorism, sexual abuse, addiction, poverty, etc. — that fester on America’s underbelly and deconstruct how the internet desensitizes us to this horror. Consider Harmon’s Morty, a 12-year-old boy who, amid an intergalactic racial struggle, chuckles the phrase, “First race war, huh?” as his older sister looks on in horror. Are we not like Morty ourselves as we sit behind screens and read about the conflicts of the world from the comfort of our couches? Tim and Eric extend the trope further still. Their most ambitious show, “Bedtime Stories,” creates its own dreamscape to infuse horror into the mundane. Terror seeps into episodes without warning and generates discomfort, but nothing ever resolves. Tim and Eric maintain storylines in a state of flux. The result is a sadistic cocktail of laughter, fear and confusion (see: the internet).

Much like the first existentialist and absurdist movements, neo-Dadaism owes its existence to war. But the war in question has neither trenches nor clearly defined sides. It’s a war within individuals, between individuals and machines and against the lukewarm melodrama with which we receive terrible news. I dare say, Dada means something in contemporary America, but such a meaning can only be shown through absurdity’s cracked projector.

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