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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.

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"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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