Surreal memes are prevalent in today’s online world. Though many older generations find them foreign, many a young person has burst into laughter at the sight of something like this:
To truly understand the appeal behind such an image, we have to go back to the time when memes consisted of nothing more than intriguing photos with huge captions.
Memes of old were often used as outlets to simply poke fun at something in a way that was relatable to most people. Having a bad day? Well, at least you’re not like Bad Luck Brian:
Or are you socially awkward to the point that it’s hard to find ways to relate to other not-as-unsociable people? Try looking at Socially Awkward Penguin:
A plethora of early memes, from Success Kid (an angry baby used to symbolize the hunger for power) to the Salty Spittoon (which used screenshots from a certain Spongebob Squarepants episode to reflect on what we find “tough” and “manly” in today’s society, sometimes sarcastically) thrived on the Internet, enthusiastically consumed by new users who had a great desire to be entertained.
As our society evolved around thee Internet, our sense of humor and, subsequently, our memes, have changed.
Nowadays, some memes don’t even need a picture and rely solely on text, such as the “me, an intellectual” meme.
A lot of modern memes have scrapped the big-text-on-the-picture format and have opted for a cleaner picture where the text is outside of the picture.
And typical picture-with-words memes have evolved and now have several subcategories. There are dank memes, which rely on somehow being relatable to people whose idea of “relatable” is radically different from the rest of the population. (People who like dank memes also tend to look down on “normie” memes, or regular, non-dank memes.) For some reason these memes often feature frogs.
Then there are wholesome memes, which are meant not to demean others or self-deprecate, as many memes used to do, but to make people happy.
One can say that memes have almost become an art (which will elicit a lot of laughs among the sophisticated population, I’m sure), with all the different genres, layouts, and presentations. Oddly enough, though, there is one genre that both art and memes share: the surreal.
In art, the surreal genre refers to art that oftentimes borders on dreamlike. One of the most famous Surrealist painters was Salvador Dali, who created landscapes of melting clocks. Other artists of his time drew forest landscapes and portraits of lovers. Salvador Dali had “The Burning Giraffe”. They had meaning, in their own way. Persistence of Memory, the painting that featured melting clocks, was meant to symbolize time passing. However, undeniably, at a glance, his paintings were detailed but weird. It wasn’t that they made no sense at all; but they were really, really weird, in an oddly sophisticated way.
Surreal memes have similar concepts. They often make no relatable connections with the person looking at it. It’s not meant to be relatable, or to be wholesome. In fact, to many they don’t make any sense. But they’re funny, in their own strange, twisted way.
Many surreal memes feature the “meme-man”, which is a grey floating head that resembles that of a mannequin. They may also feature the distortion of time, space, and matter, as well as use the concept of “the void”, which is a world of black connected to our world by a swirling black hole, sometimes used to symbolize the stark emptiness we carry inside.
Some surreal memes resemble normal or dank memes, such as Hey Beter. What separates them from the others is that they usually aren’t obviously meaningful compared to their regular counterparts. Their funniness apparently lies in how they make no sense at all.
I’ve come across many articles that tackle the somewhat confusing comedic value of the surreal meme. “Why is millennial humor so weird?” one read. Why should anyone laugh at a disembodied mannequin head with a blank, stoic expression? What’s so funny about the Void, an on-screen representation of the deep, dark blankness we all have within ourselves? Where’s the humor in the warping of dimensions and time? And what’s with Hey Beter? Why laugh about Elmo from Sesame Street shooting down an alternate version of Peter from Family Guy for failing to spell “whomst’ve”?
Because we can.
I’ve seen a lot of surreal memes, and I just inexplicably laugh in a way that a lot of other memes can’t make me. Even my brother chokes up at the sight of an image that explains the “easy” process of bending the laws of the universe to duplicate money. I’m not sure why, exactly. But I recall one online article that interviewed the Hey Beter creator, who described the appeal of his meme as a “mad race to the bottom”. Perhaps we young people laugh at these things because we can relate to how so many things in this life make no sense at all. We laugh at the meme-man, space and time, the Void, and Beter, because they represent that chaotic, nonsensical emptiness that we all feel like we have, repressed in the depths of our souls.
We also laugh just because we can.
The humor of surreal memes lies in its sheer ridiculousness that is, somehow, sophisticated to the trained eye. Like Salvador Dali’s melting clocks they hold deep meaning but present it in a weird way. And we don’t always have to find the meaning to appreciate it.
Surreal memes are a fusion of oddball comedy and out-there abstract concepts, creating something strange and—somehow—funny in ways that nobody can definitely understand. But as long as people like me find them funny, though we may not truly understand why, we will laugh.