Where are the women in the world of absurdist YouTube comedy?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 4:15pm

Lonely Island

Lonely Island Buy this photo
NBC

The creation of YouTube allowed for the widespread distribution of DIY web series and home videos. The social media platform also provided niche communities a place to broadcast their special brand of weird.

The Lonely Island, a comic-rap group made up of “Saturday Night Live” alums Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, went viral simultaneously with the launch of YouTube. Their SNL Digital Short “Lazy Sunday” helped make their pseudo-band as well as the social media platform gain celebrity status.

However, The Lonely Island doesn’t write your typical rap songs. Their music videos satirize popular culture and feature themselves with famous guest stars dressed like nerds with unibrows, sporting literal gift boxes as their “package” and other showcases of absurdist humor.

As their song titles suggest (“Jizz In My Pants,” “I Just Had Sex,” etc.), TLI both appeals to and undermines “bro comedy” culture, best represented by the filmographies of Seth Rogen, Vince Vaughn and Adam Sandler. Often, the trio makes fun of stereotypes of fratty material through extreme interpretations.

For example, in “Dick in a Box,” Samberg and Justin Timberlake sing, “A girl like you needs somethin’ real / Wanna get you somethin’ from the heart / … It’s my dick in a box.” Here, the group mocks the notion that women would appreciate some guy exposing himself without consent and laughs at the entitlement of men who approach situations in this manner.

Although all three members self-identify as feminists and use surreal and exaggerated elements to satirize norms of masculinity, their popularity still relies on the consumption and enjoyment of the “man-child” act. Samberg even admits he relies on topics that made him laugh as a kid, which Jesse David Fox of Vulture summarized as, “Dick jokes. Teenage boys love ‘em. So the Lonely Island keeps delivering ‘em.”

Good Neighbor Stuff, the SNL Digital Short successors to TLI, also got their start on YouTube. Current SNL cast members Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett were two of the main members.

GNS produced “bro comedy” low-budget videos as well, mostly centering around marijuana and the awkwardness of daily life. The most popular videos on the GNS YouTube page include shock humor bits titled “is my roommate gay?,” “My Mom’s a MILF” and “this is how we trip.” Similar to TLI, GNS both indulges in and satirizes expectations of masculinity.

So why does a correlation exist between popular absurdist humor on the internet and bro-culture? Is there a female-centric equivalent to the man-child act?

In a roundtable discussion on Consequence of Sound, Randall Colburn defined the “bro comedy” sub-genre as following a friendship between men challenged “by a female … (in which) the women are comically attractive and underdeveloped, reduced to either manipulating shrews or flawless sweethearts … (where) bad ‘boys will be boys’ behavior is celebrated.”

In other words, “bro comedy” is inherently unaccepting of women comics. Actually, comedy in general is highly misogynistic, with some critics, like Christopher Hitchens in his 2007 Variety article “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” attempting to provide empirical proof that women are biologically unfunny.

Unlike micro-budget cinema, whose low-stakes open the door for new voices, absurdist comedy has not provided a similar home for women discriminated against in their genre and profession. Instead, men continue to dominate the creative conversation.

Even though groups like The Lonely Island and Good Neighbor Stuff challenge norms of masculinity, their type of humor is still limiting for both women collaborators and consumers.

Despite the minimal amount of financial investment necessary to create successful absurdist humor content (“Lazy Sunday” cost TLI a total of $22), no female-led absurdist YouTube comics have gained popularity the same way as the aforementioned SNL alums.

Admittedly, Issa Rae’s more mainstream sense of humor allowed her YouTube series “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” to become the critically-acclaimed “Insecure,” but her sitcom-format and comedic tone are not a parallel example to TLI.

At the moment, there is no response to the popularity of the “man-child” act. A grown man acting like a teenage boy with references to crude, elementary jokes can thrive, even become a comedy icon. A trio of “bros” being ridiculous can reach over a billion hits on YouTube with a video that cost the same amount as a hardcover novel.

Are SNL digital shorts like “Dongs All Over the World” or “Natalie’s Rap” the female version of absurdist comedy? In my opinion, no. While absolutely hilarious, these videos rely on the same playbook of TLI and GNS — a playbook written by and for boys.

This is not to suggest men and women create different types of comedy because of their gender. Instead, this exploration of the underground world of YouTube comedy seeks to bring to attention the lack of female voices in a medium that should be less restricted by gender politics.

Where’s the “sister comedy” group? And why haven’t we heard of them yet?