Scroll through social media right now and amid the dire warnings and political finger-pointing, there’s quite a bit to laugh about.
Bleak jokes about cheap flights thanks to coronavirus. Memes about paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend college online. TikToks of groovy dance routines in the middle of hospitals rooms — everyone wearing surgical masks, of course.
As governments around the world warn citizens to take precautions to avoid the coronavirus, young people are using social media platforms to channel their energy into something a little less serious: creating content that finds the humor — silly or grim as it may be — in the midst of the pandemic.
“Basically, I guess I use TikTok to make jokes about my life, like, jokes that college students can relate to,” said Haden Pelletier, a sophomore at Northeastern University, whose coronavirus-themed video has gotten over 124,000 views. “I use social media a lot to just talk about my life and try to be funny, so it was just a humorous way of expressing what was happening at the time.”
Pelletier’s TikTok is short and sweet: It shows him dancing to the Education Connection jingle and sipping out of a cup with a straw. The text reads: “when theres no need to study anymore now that all exams are online and i can google the answers.” He then fans himself with his passport. The end.
One of the most popular TikToks making the rounds right now is by someone who calls himself @yahomeboiigc. In the video, he busts out dance moves while wearing a mask in what looks to be a hospital. The catchy “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa provides the soundtrack. By Friday, the TikTok had racked up 7.25 million views. Even a retweet of the video by user @ericd got hundreds of thousands of likes. His post with the video? “I don’t think a video could define our generation better than this kid making a tiktok while being tested for corona.”
Ridiculous? Sure. But you almost can’t help but smile.
The idea that humor can be used as a tension reliever in trying times isn’t anything new. Even when things are bleak, we’re almost always in the mood for a good joke, be it in the middle of war, political upheaval, and, yes, even a pandemic. And obviously, it’s not just teens and young people looking for a chuckle. Late night shows and comedians are trying to keep it light as well.
“Humor is used a lot during wartime for one reason: [It] has a lot of power to bring people together,” said Catherine Caldwell-Harris, an assistant professor of psychology and a faculty member at Boston University since 1991. “When you tell a joke, it releases tension … and along with the tension release, it brings people in a little group together. You’re all sharing a laugh.”
As colleges across the state and around the country announced closures this week, meme pages tailored for individual colleges have seen an influx in virus-related jokes. Tyler Taintor, an admin for a University of Massachusetts Amherst-related meme page with nearly 5,000 members, believes the jokes can contribute to the conversation in a positive way.
“I think that with all of the awful things that are going on around the planet and everywhere, just to be able to sit down, read something, and just for a second be out of that moment, be in its own little moment ... I think that’s important," he said. “I definitely think that helps people."
After UMass told students that they would be forced to take classes online at least through April 3, Taintor changed the group’s name from “UMass Memes for Second Tier Tweens”to “UMass Memes for Temporarily Quarantined Teens.”
“I think especially with our generation, we can use this as a healthy coping mechanism,” said Taintor, a senior at the university. “It doesn't really affect us at the end of the day, but we recognize the severity of it.”
And unlike other types of tragedies, the very nature of the coronavirus may also lend itself to humor. People often find bodily interactions, such as contact with others, humorous. Pair this with images of medical bodysuits and face masks, and there may be a sort of slapstick humor that comedians (online and off) can draw material from.
“Humor is always going to be pushing the envelope, and we’ve got to kind of give it some leeway for that,” Caldwell-Harris said. “I actually think it’s a neat phenomenon where people are pulling together and having a national conversation about something that’s actually important. Maybe there can be more conversations, you know, income inequality or other things, and young people can get more political. It can be a stepping stone to that.”
Matt Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.