Why Today's Youth Reject Charlie Hebdo Brand Of Humor

The dynamics of social networks have established a climate of caution for young people, whose sense of fun is more narcissistic and less political than previous generations.

Who's laughing now?
Who's laughing now?
Rinny Gremaud

GENEVA — Over the past two weeks, many parents have had to explain Charlie Hebdo and the heritage of Hara-Kiri magazine (Charlie Hebdo"s predecessor) to a younger and sometimes puzzled generation. Looking through Wolinski's cartoons and talking about Charlie Hebdo"s covers during a family meal have often led to this common conclusion: Young people simply don't find that brand of humor funny.

"Tell me if you laugh, how you laugh, why you laugh, about who and what, with whom and against whom, and I'll tell you who you are," historian Jacques Goff wrote as a preamble to his Enquête sur le rire (Investigating laughter). Humor is an expression of culture, and it necessarily reflects its own time period. It can also become obsolete.

Charlie Hebdo, founded in 1970, embodies anarchist, in-your-face humor, the kind born from the period of civil unrest in France known as "May 68." It is furiously libertarian and anti-authority, and it has long believed itself to be young.

"At the time, it was designed to disturb a society full of inertia, of dullness," says François L’Yvonnet, a philosophy professor and publisher in Paris. "The right to stupid and vicious humor was part of a whole set of claims. It was a festive form of expression. Since then, society has changed, including customs, sexuality, freedom of expression."

In other words, drawing dicks everywhere doesn't have the same political significance it once did. It has little humorous value with certain audiences. "For young people, it's a bit like dad humor," says Grégoire Furrer, head of the Montreux Comedy Festival.

"Humor of that time, personified by Coluche, or Desproges, has become very classical, traditional," says French sociologist Nelly Quemener. "Whatever we may think about it, it's the humor of a man, white and of a certain age. Of today's ruling classes."

That's a particularly striking observation. The recent tragic events in Paris, in fact, shed light on the closeness between Charlie Hebdo and the highest levels of the government in power.

"This form of humor changed sides," L’Yvonnet notes. "It's been completely assimilated to become a pivotal element of show business. The humorist fits into the system. He has his appointed seat at the news commentators' table. As a result, he's become a lot more sensible, or falsely subversive. Some don't hesitate to publicly insult, but without having a political significance, it's not worth anything."

Goofy selfies are hilarious

So what brand of humor do today's youth prefer? "Stupid and vicious humor still exists, but it doesn't weigh anything against narcissistic humor, centered on one's precious self, dominant in private and intimate circles," says Robert Aird, co-founder of Québec's Observatoire de l’humour. "It's a reflection of society."

Scenes of everyday life, cheesy pickup lines, work life and job hunting — these sorts of topics dominate the humor of today's youth, which is closer to the comedy of manners than to political and social satire. Blander, more consensual and less political, today's young humorists take fewer risks.

"It's not self-censorship," Furrer says. "But they want to appeal to the largest audience, so they avoid sensitive issues such as politics or religion. The economic dimension is central for today's humorists, and they don't want to risk cutting themselves off from a part of their audience."

Production and distribution conditions of humor have also become more restrictive. Lawyers, producers, distributors and advertisers add an additional pressure than eventually flattens the fun.

Young humorists are not more concerned about hurting people's feelings than their elders, but they do feel that they're constantly under surveillance, Aird explains. Thomas Wiesel, a 25-year-old Swiss humorist, agrees. "Nowadays, young people perform knowing that their shows can be filmed by anyone, and that pieces of what they said can be spread out of context. It's a bad experience lots of humorists go through. You can also lose control of what you said, and everything can go off track."

Changes in social and consumer behaviors also explain why the abrasive form of humor that followed the events of May 68 has been gradually marginalized. To make people laugh, it's also important to be able to address topics with wide appeal. "Access to media has become so segmented, you choose the news you want to read about, and you're only exposed to that," Wiesel explains. "There used to be only three television channels, and what happened was seen by everyone."

Humor was more widely shared, between generations, between communities. The fragmentation that characterizes our era is naturally reflected by humorists. On YouTube, each community, each age group, has its own comic icons.

We are also seeing new formats emerging, such as humorous videos that last four or five seconds, situational humor that requires much less investment from the audience. And it works.

"For a generation of hyperactive multitaskers, a minute that lasts more than a minute is already too long," Wiesel says. "But the shorter the timespan, the harder it is to set a context and elaborate an idea."

Which, at the end of the day, could give new hope to disciples of sophomoric and vicious humor. Because in four or five seconds, there's enough time to be one or the other, or both.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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