Even more than most other years, 2020 has been a time when we’ve experienced events through meme culture. Having spent almost half of the year to this point either indoors or worrying about whether we should be indoors, the glut of despairing jokes, coronavirus memes and Dominic Cummings tweetstorms have been incredibly comforting, even when they’ve been pressing on some miserable and infuriating moments.
The strange warping and flexing flow of time since about mid-March generally gets put down to lockdown, the stress of living through a pandemic and the overriding sense that we’ve been monkey-barring our way from one day to the next. But perhaps the realisation that, say, Olly Murs’s horrendous prank with the Pringles tube only happened in the middle of May, is jarring for reasons other than the fact that you’ve not had any human contact in six months.
We’ve been living more intensely online, and while the amount of online stuff that’s happened has probably been only a bit higher than normal, the offline stuff that counteracts it and helps you actually parcel out the chunks of your life in a meaningful way hasn’t been there as balance. The memes have been the real staging posts of the last six months.
These are the best we’ve seen so far this year.
Good news, everyone! The pubs are staying open! Until 10pm! Despite the bleak point we find ourselves at as autumn turns, there is at least the prospect that socially distanced outdoor afters can now get cracking a couple of hours earlier.
The logic of pub and restaurant curfews is relatively sensible, really, but after the last six months of illogic and increasingly Byzantine advice, laws, recommendations, discouragements, encouragements, initiatives and directives, everyone’s pretty sick of it. So, obviously, the memes tend toward a sarky appraisal of how bringing last orders forward an hour is going to magically keep a pandemic at bay.
For weeks before Boris Johnson’s recent announcement, the UK had been a hotchpotch of local lockdowns and areas where it was basically New Years Eve all the time, baby. Now, though, everyone in England is on the same timetable, so we may at least have some decent memes to show for this new phase. At the very least, it’s an excellent excuse to wheel out some of the greatest formats of all time. For instance:
There will come a day when the old anti-piracy meme won’t be funny, but we’ll all be in the cold, cold ground before it comes.
It’s very good to have me on
Matt Hancock, eh? Matt Hancock. Back in 2018 he was famous only for launching a mildly hilarious personal app, which opened with Hancock’s chirpy greeting “Hi I’m Matt Hancock and welcome to my app,” and ended up as a one-man Facebook with nearly as many security issues. You might remember that it would ask for access to your photos, and you’d say no, and it would get access anyway. Now he’s the actual Health Secretary, and occasionally his brain falls out of the back of his head on breakfast TV.
Keir Starmer, riff addict
Screenshots of odd facial expressions are, like sarcasm and You’ve Been Framed!, right down there at the bottom of the humour sophistication pyramid. They’re silly, stupid, generally completely unfair on the people who’ve briefly been caught gurning or snoozing or whatever. Would you like it if someone did it to you? Hmm? Would that be funny to you, everyone laughing at your stupid face?
However, like sarcasm and You’ve Been Framed!, screenshots of odd facial expressions are also really, really funny. Sir Keir Starmer’s PMQs face made it look like he was on the bus home after three pints and had Channel Orange on his noise-cancelling headphones. And do you know what? Sometimes that’s all you need.
To make your own, simply substitute in the chunkiest drop you can summon up.
The last six months in 17 seconds
Been an odd 2020 for Matt Lucas, hasn’t it? The good: got the Bake Off gig. The bad: had to spend several days apologising for Little Britain. The arrival of this video in May, though, might have taken the edge off that though. It’s easy to do a very bad Johnson impression by just mumbling a bit and SUDdenly changing the, ah, inFLECtion of your, ah, ah, perambuLATing, ah, sentences. Lucas has captured the latter-day serious-face Johnson very tidily here, all earnest eyebrows and lower register to show that actually, guys, this is quite serious now.
Just this tweet
my boss turned herself into a potato on our Microsoft teams meeting and can’t figure out how to turn the setting off, so she was just stuck like this the entire meeting pic.twitter.com/uHLgJUOsXk
— Rachele Clegg (@PettyClegg) March 30, 2020
It’s……… so good.
Dettol’s Trainspotting-channelling advert
Trying to get everyone to head back to the office just as the spectre of a second wave is starting to darken the country’s doorway was always going to be a tricky sell, but thankfully Dettol’s matey, with-it, zeitgeist-frotting Tube advert settled the debate once and for all. We’re all commuting straight to B&M bargains, buying a bottle of Dettol, and emptying it straight into our eyes.
honestly all these dettol ads have put me firmly on the side of the 0.1% of bacteria it doesn’t kill https://t.co/WUigAsE3ZM
— out of focus distant figure in a yellow top (@stepheniscowboy) September 3, 2020
We’ve got some more memes here, if you’re into it.
The Reese Witherspoon challenge
The ‘challenge’ aspect of this challenge is negligible, really, but in the same way as Dolly Parton invited us to put together Instagram collages of our Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tinder pics, Reese Witherspoon’s account gave us a new template for visualising what the hell this year has been. The general trajectory: hopeful, joyous, concerned, terrified, sort of holding it together, exhausted.
Jonathan Swan, confused
The first most of us in the UK heard of journalist Jonathan Swan was during that very odd “person, woman, man, camera, TV” interview with Donald Trump (more on which below), and the instantly memeable couple of confused looks that followed some of Trump’s less comprehensible explanations for why, actually, every aspect of his handling of the pandemic was completely fine.
There’s something mildly comforting in the knowledge that the continuity of reaction memes runs unbroken to the reign of George II, when Samuel Johnson could not believe ye absolute nonsense he was having to deal with.
Swole Doge vs Cheems
Imagine having to explain the collection of words introducing this meme to someone even five years ago. Anyway, the story of Cheems, an Instagram famous Shiba Inu who came to prominence because of his squashy good looks, is beautiful in itself. But put him next to an unnervingly Chad-ish version of him and he becomes a poster boy for the generally underwhelming vibe of 2020 so far. Normally we wouldn’t countenance this kind of solipsistic moping and griping about living in the most technologically advanced age of the only known intelligent life in the observed universe, but this year it feels like exaggerated whinging is, at the very least, a communal event for the people, rather than a means of wishing the world was a bit more male and straight, thanks very much.
The Ongoing Wembley Lasagne Saga
When we look back on 2020, this WhatsApp voice note will be one of the keystones to understanding the mental space we found ourselves in at the start of April. In short: to deal with food shortages, the FA had offered the home of English football up to the service of the nation, and would close up its retractable roof, turn on the under-soil heating, and make the biggest lasagne north London has ever seen.
The Ministry of Defence supposedly coordinating a Massive Lasagna😆 sampled this recording i found this morning, self isolation done right ? pic.twitter.com/kV9lLKW3Jw
— Lotrax (@lotraxsounds) March 21, 2020
The man behind the WhatsApp voice note that went mad is 29-year-old Londoner Billy McLean, who works in software sales. He chucked it into a group of 30 of his mates from football, and it went off its head.
“It was just a one take. I sent it to the football group, my mum and the girl that I’m trying to date,” he told the Guardian. “It went around the football group. Then I got people that I know forwarding it to me, not knowing it was me, or forwarding it to me asking if I’d heard it. Ex-girlfriends were coming out of the woodwork asking was it me.”
Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV
Turning Donald Trump’s mouldering speeches and brain dumps into memeable moments feels like a very 2017 thing to do – the kind of luxury we could afford when there were only three or four global crises for us to worry about – but his explanation of why his brain is fantastic came pre-prepared with a little puck of herbed butter on top ready to pop straight into the oven.
TRUMP: I asked the doctor, I said, ‘is there some kind of cognitive test that I could take?’ … the last questions are much more difficult. Like a memory question. You’ll go ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV.’ So they say — ‘can you repeat that?’ … for me it was easy.” 😳 pic.twitter.com/pCKYoNy3BH
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 23, 2020
Trump seemed to be suggesting that his performance in this particular test is definitive and undeniable proof that he’s some kind of very stable genius, but others have pointed out that the test he’s talking about, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, is only really for showing if you have signs of dementia, Alzheimer’s or other degenerative illnesses.
That bit isn’t the bit that got memed. (It’s not much of a laugh, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment and the attendant degenerative illnesses it diagnoses.) It’s the bit where he went “person, woman, man, camera, TV,” again and again. Obviously it’s an American thing, but it’s beached itself on these shores too.
And electro producer Louis Le Roche gave it the full Daft Punk rework.
Fatboy Slim dropped that during a DJ set with Idris Elba the other day you know. Banger. There’s something oddly meditative about the cadence of those five words. Person, woman, man, camera, TV. It’s like a really shit haiku. Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.
Dear Sexy Fish London
Jess Glynne’s had a hell of a 12 months. This time last year she’d just been banned for life from the Isle of Wight Festival for cancelling last minute, and then at the start of July she was refused service at Mayfair seafood hangout Sexy Fish.
“Dear @sexyfishlondon I turned up to your restaurant looking like this and you looked me and my friend up and down and said no you can’t come in and your restaurant was EMPTY.”
The ‘So Real (Warriors)’ tunesmith went on: “@sexyfishlondon please check yourself if this is how you treat people cause it’s rude, off putting, embarrassing and most definitely not inviting. We were made to wait and 2 members of staff came to look at us and make a decision based on our appearance. I think the attitude of your staff needs to change as that was just simply RUDE.”
We can but hope that one day, perhaps society will stop treating pop stars as second class citizens. Until that day, we’ll turn them into memes.
Dear Sexy Fish London I turned up to your restaurant looking like this and you looked me and my friend up and down and said no you can’t come in and your restaurant was EMPTY pic.twitter.com/vOfLYEAtdG
— Grant Tucker (@GrantTucker) July 7, 2020
That’s from a deeply unlikely campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of overfishing, which took a leaf out of Peta’s playbook and slapped dead fish all over nude celebs including Biggins, Gillian Anderson and Miriam Margolyes. Anyway. Here’s cat Judi Dench wearing another cat’s pelt as a trophy.
Dear sexy fish london I turned up to your restaurant looking like this and you looked me and my friend up and down and said no you can’t come in and your restaurant was EMPTY pic.twitter.com/FCuK1IRRYo
— Liv Marks (@OliviaLilyMarks) July 7, 2020
This is a solid, all-purpose meme with a very low barrier to entry. Anyone can do it. Copy and paste the diatribe, pick a picture of someone looking daft and away you go.
The pubs are back
In the run up to what was, with thundering crassness, billed as ‘Super Saturday’, the tension was palpable. On the one hand: joy that pubs might have a chance to avoid being shut down and turned into flats by predatory developers, and that staff could get paid properly again; on the other, worries that by getting involved you were helping launch a second spike of the coronavirus and helping the government pretend everything is absolutely fine again. Bring those hands together, and you get some searingly hot memes.
Jo March, who simply cannot
The emotional climax of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation found a second life as a means of expressing all those things which you wish you could stop yourself doing but, as Jo tells Laurie when he tries throwing some matrimony at her, you simply can’t despite your best efforts.
Sue Sylvester’s toxic environment
No, we didn’t have Glee’s return to cultural prominence down in the great 2020 sweepstakes either, but here we are, crudely editing the words of an intensely awful PE teacher for a laugh.
sue sylvester returning to stan twitter consciousness is the only good thing that’s happened in 2020 so far pic.twitter.com/lqj0Oo2az9
— cat | betty’s garden (@cruelaugusts) July 5, 2020
The first wave was a tidy little recontextualising gag, but the second and third pushed it into a more agreeably DIY, MS Paint vibe with more remixing potential. Things have since got a bit out of hand.
Remixing the BBC News theme
Given how much of this year’s been spent in a paralysing state of oh-Christ-what-is-it-now-ness, it feels a little bit improper to pick up the news purely through push notifications. There’s been quite a few moments where you wanted to be watching the actual news on the actual TV, just so it feels a bit more real. One of the pleasant side-effects is a renewed appreciation for the BBC News theme, which is an absolute banger. The biggest hit was this mash-up of the theme and Dua Lipa’s ‘Hallucinate’ from her new album.
Other reinterpretations included BBC weatherman Owain Wyn Evans drumming along, and many, many TikTok remixes.
The cruel economics of Animal Crossing
Times are tough over on this godforsaken rock. Turnip prices are all over the place. Tom Nook has had it up to here with your excuses and bartering So what do you do? You do what you need to do to survive.
The return of the pub
Three months since they closed, pubs are back. But what should have been a joyous moment is coloured by doubt. It’s good to support local businesses and beleaguered licensees, but you just know you’re going to forget which way the one-way system goes or walk straight into a plexiglass screen on your way to the toilet. It doesn’t feel safe, and it probably isn’t going to feel much like the pub either. It’s a moral maze. And that’s before you get onto finding a conscionable position on heading back to Wetherspoons.
The Marriage Story fight
A close cousin of the American Chopper fight meme from back in the misty days of 2018, the one where Paul Teutul Jr and Paul Teutul Sr gradually build up their bickering until they’re launching tables and chairs at each other, the Marriage Story fight is subtly different. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter. For another, It pivots on Adam Driver absolutely flipping his shit. It’s petulance incarnate.
Gen Z vs. Millennials
Saying ‘doggo’, doing Buzzfeed quizzes, clinging to the Harry Potter universe as both a lucky mascot in an unfeeling world and a moral compass: as lockdown dragged on, Gen Z started roasting Millennials on TikTok. It’s more of an American thing than a British thing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still sting for those of us approaching cultural obsolescence. Then again, it could be a co-ordinated pincer movement from Gen Alpha and the Boomers.
Nature is healing
First, the fish came back to Venice. Then some goats started rampaging through Llandudno. Then Twitter started spotting even more natural phenomena which the lockdown – and the subsequent almost complete lack of humanity outside which accompanied it – had allowed to return to their natural rhythms.
We never did hear anything else about the Llandudno goats, come to think of it. Presumably at this point they’ve set up a breakaway senedd and are conducting preliminary diplomatic discussions with the human Welsh parliament.
Imagine one day having this train map
In June, a map showing the entire world joined together in one gigantic railway network popped up on Twitter.
It was meant to be, explained the author of the 2007 book that it first appeared in, a playful way of mapping all the cities with light rail systems rather than an actual proposal for commuters from Nottingham to Tehran. That didn’t stop Twitter taking the piss.
Bob Mortimer’s been doing pencil case imagineer and business guru Train Guy in various guises for a while on the Athletico Mince podcast, but its only this year that he’s really gone overground. (Not that Train Guy would travel on the Overground; he’s a first class lounge regular on Virgin West Coast.) Don’t know Train Guy? You’ll have sat next to him at some point. We’ve got some more Train Guy thoughts here too, as it happens. Have a campachoochoo on us. There’s also a soundboard now.
‘My Plans / 2020’
The definitive meme of this harrowing new decade. Gather up all your hopes, your dreams and your wishes and dump them into the biggest bin you can find. It’s 2020, baby!
Don’t bother trying to volte face on an issue and hoping that Twitter won’t notice. This simple, shatteringly effective tap-on-the-shoulder was most devastatingly deployed by comedian Lolly Adefope in response to David Walliams’ tweets about Black Lives Matter.
A few days later, Little Britain and Come Fly With Me were yanked off Netflix. Coincidence?
Just as lockdown started to bite, a bid for freedom by an African grey parrot called Chanel obsessed Twitter. (Chanel’s full name, we found out later, was Chanel Chanelington.) The bird’s distraught ma, Sandra, did the only thing most of us would think to do in that situation: she went outside and shouted her bird’s name repeatedly.
Why had Chanel just flown away out of the garden? What was it about life in suburban Liverpool that had apparently led her to snap? Would she ever return? All we knew was that she’d headed off towards the canal. Obviously this was absolute dynamite material.
Chanel the parrot did turn up in the end and Sandra got to go on This Morning, so all’s well that ends well.
To Grimes and Elon Musk, a child: X Æ A-Xii
At this stage of proceedings – after the ‘pedo guy’ debacle, and that time Musk pulled a “well, actually” on Grimes hours after she’d had surgery, and the episode where Azealia Banks was apparently trapped in their house – an ain’t-Elon-Musk-and-Grimes-whacky meme should barely make a dent. And yet here we are, still goggling at the fact that they dropped a calculator on the floor and transcribed the display onto a birth certificate.
TikTok Versus Politics
Miming along with political speeches and interviews has become a boom industry in the last couple of months. The UK’s undoubted queen is Meggie Foster.
And over in America, it’s Sarah Cooper.
The ‘I Am A Free I Am Not Man A Number’ Meme
A deeply bathetic protest on the Mall by a lot of very ruddy freedom-fighters, who wanted to go to the pub and cough on each other, gave us this, a head-scrambling rendering of Patrick McGoohan’s line from The Prisoner.
The ‘Wash Your Lyrics’ Meme
The overture before the full symphonic beauty of the memes of lockdown, this was the first big hit of the coronavirus period. We were told to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while scrubbing our mitts to make sure we did them properly. The internet had some other suggestions: Rage Against the Machine, the Sex Pistols, and Neil Kinnock at the 1985 Labour Party Conference.
Brendan O’Neill’s Gigantic Forehead
When he’s not wandering around bumping into truly awful opinions, the columnist and professional wind-up merchant is occasionally invited onto TV programmes to talk about current affairs and prove there are bad takes to be mined even beneath the bottom of the barrel. Twitter has taken to hitting him where it hurts: right in the massive forehead.
The ‘LinkedIn / Facebook / Instagram / Tinder’ Meme
This one probably didn’t start with Dolly Parton herself, but by God, she gave it an almighty shot in the arm. The different hats we wear on the social media platforms that our parents’ generation have heard of are pretty daft, aren’t they.
The Coronavirus Briefings
That goddamn ‘rony has at least necessitated the creation of the daily briefings, which have proved fertile memeing grounds. Regular targets have included the vague graphs, the revolving cast of unknown junior ministers stepping in when things get too hot, and the rapidly escalating sense that nobody knows what’s going on.
Dominic Cummings’s Eye Test Grand Prix
Boris Johnson’s talismanic advisor decided that the best way to deal with both himself and his wife developing coronavirus symptoms was to ignore the direction to isolate for two weeks and drive 260 miles north to Durham. Cummings’s line that he only drove to the nearby town of Barnard Castle to test his eyesight was one for the ages. The Cummings memes made the whole sordid business even funnier.
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