Why Is Learning Something Online Considered Funny

Kaitlin Noonan’s research points to the existence of an interesting phenomenon.
When it comes to Internet memes, our eyeballs light up, but is that a good thing?

We’ve always had funny books. Every grownup is primed and ready for some mindless reading when it’s time to wind down and sit back and relax. “Carrot Cake” and the straightforward pleasure of “My Dearest More Fool You” never fail to strike a chord with kids and adults alike. It’s the ancient subtext of these old fairy tales that leaves the door wide open for clever snark that is thoroughly wicked.

But as children’s books such as these grow with new technology—kitting out readers with tablets to dissect and discuss the ins and outs of Harry Potter and Super Mario Brothers—movies are becoming the new mecca for playful subversion.

The insidious library of “kids movies” includes: the thoughtful universe of Watchmen, which attempts to explore the comic book genre and give it some layers with layer after layer of subtext; the neo-noir of Pulp Fiction, whose depiction of gangsters and femmes fatales begs the question, Where do their motivations come from?; the otherworldly mystery of Moon, in which a peculiar mother and son meet and make the most peculiar choices; and the coming-of-age tale of The Room, which offers up the increasingly alarming vision of one’s adult life as unvarnished chaos, second-hand goods and porn videos.

None of these films transgress the parameters of typical children’s fare. It’s the point of these movies, which often end in spectacular bloody deaths, to be unnerving in a completely different way than the usual holiday-season cute. In fact, one trope so beloved in children’s films in particular is the character who winds up out of place in a place he’s forced to hang out. An early rule of kids’ literature is that children who come from poor families have to do unpleasant things for a living and encounter the worst of humanity from the very start.

But in the latest “kids” movies, you can count on neither significant social themes nor highly specific social commentary. Movies like Arrival and The Post are about the loss of an ally but have little to say about the very real questions of climate change and media and the future of democracy. Likewise, the inescapable question of Bumblebee’s gender in Transformers: The Last Knight—which took place in the 1980s—was swept under the rug as the sequel takes place in today’s world.

Now, even these young stars of children’s movies want to step out of the mainstream, and they have found their way to the dark and twisted realm of adult humor.

In Snatched, the backwoods, freaky hillbilly of Snatched meets a cowboy with a nose for trouble, and the results are nothing short of hilarious.

In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the underground enclave of “Marvel Noir” meets the walled space of their high school universe in a grand set piece.

And in The Lego Movie, heroes from the farthest corners of the Lego universe come together in a Lego Free Ride, where everything goes horribly wrong and they can each climb atop of the vat of pee-soaked breadsticks, scattering pieces of breadcrumbs in their tracks in order to survive.

These aren’t old jokes at the expense of children. These are grownup-made jokes aimed squarely at grownup jokes.

The content is no less clear in Bad Moms. When a guy tells moms Natalie Portman, Leslie Mann and Mila Kunis how privileged their lives are, it’s just the one-liner reference to your typical coddled celeb. But in Boy Erased, a bullying gay dad eventually has his head caught in the toilet. And when a character from The Disaster Artist identifies with a former student’s best friend’s suicide, it’s never overtly meant to provoke and it’s just one messed up joke meant to resonate with the listener, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The question is, what is the difference between this immature subtext in adults’ movies and children’s stories? Is it an attempt to insulate adult adults from the dangers of the internet that sometimes alienates children and their caregivers? Are there underlying layers of “safe” adult comedy that have been forgotten and left out of the next one? Perhaps there’s just no turning back. And in a place as as fascinating as our era is, even old books still can’t win.

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