In our first official act as the new ruling party of Laid Off NYC, we asked writers to choose cultural objects—pieces of art, memes, fashion trends—and use them to reflect on their years. In Part II of these reflections, we discuss the things that helped us see the light in 2020, and the things that give us hope for 2021. We discuss doomerism, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Jason Polan, Ben Shapiro deepfakes, buying the dip, Kentucky Route Zero and radical kindness in comedy.
RE-INAUGURATION — Carlos Drummond de Andrade
(translated by Rapha Grumser)
Between the spent December
and the florid January,
between disillusion and expectation,
we regain our faith, we are good boys again,
and like good boys we reclaim
the grace of colorful presents.
Our age—young or old—doesn’t matter.
What matters is to feel alive
and excited once more,
and bathed in beauty,
the exact beauty that comes from
spontaneous gestures and the deep instinct to subsist while our surroundings
melt and vanish
like errant clouds
in a stable universe.
We begin again.
We open hungry eyes to a different sun
that wakes us to discoveries.
That is the magic of time.
That is the particular fruit
ripened by the warm embrace and the telling kiss,
by believing in life and the grant to live it
in perpetual search and constant creation.
And we are no longer small and alone.
We are a brotherhood, a territory,
a country beginning anew
at the rooster’s crow on January first
drawing in the light
its fragile project of happiness.
“You seem to climb down into some sort of astral hole, Rapha,” my sister told me over wine. It is true: grab a drink with any one of my close friends and eventually they will reveal to you that I can be the grouchiest of grouches. My grumbling simmers at low heat throughout the year and reaches its boiling point during the exact two-week period that comprises Christmas, New Years, and, miserably, my birthday. After wine, when almost everyone had gone to bed, I tiptoed to the bookshelf to look for something to read. I found a slim volume of poetry by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. On its front cover a boldfaced English title stood resolutely against a baby blue sky with a string of peaceful cumulus clouds. Every grouch has a soft spot; I have always been a sucker for clouds.
Farewell is a collection of 49 poems left by Drummond for posthumous publication just days before his death in 1987. Curled up in my sister’s office that night, I read through the book until I reached poem #43, “Reinauguração” (“Re-Inauguration”). It stopped me like a gut-shot with its colorful presents, errant clouds, hungry eyes, and fragile projects of happiness. These innocent details opened me up to the discovery of something so basic, so sentimental; something whose beauty had been veiled by the haze of my grumbling: the holidays, the closing and opening of cycles, another year on earth.
In the New Year, after I discovered Farewell, I bought a paper calendar. The first day of the year had been highlighted in orange and marked by the calendar company as “confraternização universal” (“universal get-together”). And here, somewhat less grumpily, I thought of Drummond’s brotherhood, territory, and country beginning anew at the rooster’s crow on January first. In the summer sun of the southern hemisphere I began to scrawl my resolutions into my calendar’s margins.
In a few penumbral reaches of the internet, there exists a community that owes its cultural cohesion to extreme pessimism. Entropy is, paradoxically, the force that binds them together. They share the belief that the world is riddled with irreparable catastrophes of our own making—that climate change, political and economic dysfunction, and demographic changes will engender the end of the world. People in this group, which consists primarily but not exclusively of lonely, depressed men, are known as “doomers.”
2020 was, unsurprisingly, a ripe year for the doomer imagination. It started with a would-be world war that was barely averted, and ended with over a million people dead from a new disease and many millions more acres of ashen land where forests once stood.
The doomer subculture is best summarized by Wojak, a caricature of a sad, bald, bestubbled man that took off as a meme on German and Polish 4chan servers about 10 years ago. Today, he’s the most prominent memetic shorthand for the type of depression specific to the doomer. Alone in some blighted urban nightmare, the doomer looks for ways to fill the void within himself, usually with sad music and drugs.
Doomers are not necessarily incels, though the two groups are agnatic, two iterations of extreme male loneliness. The doomer imagines himself more enlightened than the ignominious involuntary celibate, more interested in achieving nirvana than in finding a romantic partner, but this is self-delusion. Still, the doomer has little of the incel’s chauvinism, entitlement, or rage. Doomers are almost a secular analogue to a millenarian Christian cult. Dissatisfied with mere existence, they anticipate the end of the world but without any hope of deliverance or salvation.
I am reluctant to use a meme to define myself, but I am a doomer in at least a few, mostly superficial respects. I readily identify with many of their anxieties and share their melancholic predilection for taking walks at night and listening to Joy Division. But 2020, for all of the pain, hardship, and isolation it wrought on the world, was a better year for me than 2019 was. It was in March, when the world started to lose its footing on the precipice of a plague, that I started to succeed in defeating my own depression.
I did not power through my mental illness in a heroic fashion, or achieve some fantastic, illusory kind of enlightenment. It was simply that the crises unfurling around me made me grateful for what security I did have. My acceptance of the need for help also gave me a sense of direction and purpose I lacked in 2019, when I graduated from college and entered a world that had no use for me except as an automaton.
Like most doomers, I am a product of what Christopher Lasch calls a “culture of narcissism.” The depression that I and many doomers have experienced comes from a feeling of existential loneliness and immense personal dissatisfaction with life. But this particular depression, and the therapy it necessitates, is often a natural, even expected outgrowth of the culture of narcissism. We are not alone, and yet we are possessed by the unshakable feeling that we are the only ones in the world facing these existential crises. It might not be pleasant admitting to a low-grade narcissism, but it’s a lot better than fixating on the end of the world.
As supply chains faltered, established meanings dissolved, and society as a whole seemed to crumble, hundreds of thousands of young people heard the whisper in the wind: “buy the dip.”
2020 enabled unbelievably easy access to the oldest, largest social network in the world: the market. All we needed to do was download an app, lie about our income and experience to qualify for options trading, and directly deposit that stimulus check into our accounts. Though the closure of gyms may have softened our bodies, there were new types of gains to be had.
Never again, will we be stagnant, softposters of the global economy; exchanging fiat currency for gifts and goods, with no return on investment, and no vote in the annual shareholders meeting. Now, due to the great faltering step of 2020, a new class of retail investors has woken up to the realities of passive income enabled by fractional shares, quarterly dividends, and zero percent commission trading. Comrades, let us seize the means of production! Let us reap the profits of our online shopping! Let us hardpost in the market!
We were too busy eating shit to realize we were shitting gold. But now, through simple, gamified trading, we have the ability to become the human-centipede ouroboros of finance, slowly spinning further into the green. Are there potential negative externalities to this recycled ecosystem of amateur traders with an unwise amount of their net worth tethered to an impossibly complicated system that seems to defy expectations at every turn? I cannot tell, for I am too consumed by the blinding glory of rolling calls into calls and directing profits into triple-leveraged ETFs. Faster, young Icarus, up and to the right, to the moon!
Someday soon the line will go down and green numbers will turn red. But that won’t be the end of this ride, for when the bull becomes a bear, the boy becomes a man. One day, when the Bloomberg talking heads say we’ve bottomed out, I and the rest of this newly vested class will once again heed the call, and buy the dip.
Jason Polan, a prolific illustrator of life in New York, died almost exactly a year ago, at age 37. When the push notification announcing his death rattled my phone awake, I was sitting at my new desk at my new job, next to my new coworker. We both let out disheartened sighs as we scrolled through the same New York Times obituary—she on her oversized computer monitor, me on my palm-sized phone screen.
In March, three months after Polan’s passing, I was in an emotional fugue state that robbed me of my preexisting creativity. The pandemic’s machination to zap my focus made finding pockets of positivity feel like a success. On an artist friend’s Instagram account, I’d catch an illustrated witticism that assuaged my low mood momentarily: a subway rider donning a hazmat suit paired with a magazine-logoed tote; a lanky twentysomething working from home in a Goya can fort; a hesitant diver peering over the tip of her platform with floaties on her biceps (ambition with anxiety). As my obsession with black-and-white iconography escalated, I grew from casual observer to New Yorker cartoon caption contestant and doodler of women’s legs in sandwich garters, lettuce lace and all. Neither activity came with particular success, but both ignited flickers of inspiration in an otherwise clouded mind.
Polan got high on Sisyphean travails. His first big project involved illustrating miniature reproductions of every piece on display in the MoMA: an Ellsworth Kelly became a tiny upside-down boat’s sail, a Jackson Pollock was reincarnated as wayward pencil scratches. But outside the museum’s walls, Polan channeled his frenetic zeal to capture a more kinetic scene. In the 42nd Street station, he worked on a notable enterprise: drawing every person in New York City. These portrait sketches vary in intricacy—a dim sum of realism and abstraction, depending on how long the person was in view. He never accomplished his mission, but he raced toward it relentlessly until cancer cut him short.
In the photo of Polan that sits above his Times obituary, he stands with sketch pad in hand and mouth agape, emanating a crystalline focus that only the adrenaline of Brooks Brothers suits rushing to morning meetings could inspire. How would Polan have reacted to a bracing Times Square turned bereft? I wondered this, as I drew a picture of a tangelo wearing a surgical mask, and watched professional artists adapt their processes throughout the spring and summer.
It’s easy to see Polan’s death as prescient. Had he lived only several more months, his journey toward 8.3 million sketched New Yorkers would have halted, or at least slowed, the boulder on his shoulders much heavier than before. But maybe he would have been alright. Maybe he would have adapted, switched routes. Maybe he would have found solace in the complexity of his interior, not his milieu, and inspiration in new corners of the world.
There was at least one moment of unmitigated joy from the previous summer: the days which followed the release of the “WAP” video. These were the days I spent dancing around my apartment, announcing my presence to roommates by loudly reciting the lyrics: “I don’t want to spit, I wanna gulp / I wanna gag, I wanna choke / I want you to touch that lil' dangly thing / That swing in the back of my throat.” Delicious! Hilarious! Unhinged!
Apparently, right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro didn’t share my elation. “Guys,” he said on his podcast, a touch of panic in his whiny, prepubescent voice, “This is what feminists fought for. It’s what feminism is all about. It’s not really about women being treated as independent, full-rounded human beings, it’s about wet ass p-word.” And then came his follow-up tweet: “As I also discussed on the show, my only real concern is that the women involved—who apparently require a "bucket and a mop"—get the medical care they require. My doctor wife's differential diagnosis: bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, or trichomonas.” Hahahahahahaha! How glorious to see such a loathsome creature admit publicly to his inability to inspire sexual pleasure in another. And with such confidence! With such self-righteousness!
And if all that weren’t enough, some precocious young scamp gave us the deepfake—the glorious deepfake!—and Ben Shapiro’s face was magically superimposed onto those of the video’s stars. On their voluptuous bodies, his sneering, pissed-off expression becomes seductive, his eyes offer an invitation, his baby-smooth skin seems suddenly appropriate. I will forever feel pleasure at the thought of his head on Kylie Jenner’s body. Who could have foretold the seamlessness and grace with which their beings would merge?
The whole debacle was, at second glance, a carnival of terrors. Shapiro’s terse response to “WAP” reminds one how many people are genuinely threatened by these silly lyrics—and by the independence of women, more generally. While Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion celebrate their sexuality in this fun, merrymaking video, domestic violence rates surge and abortion rights dwindle. Shapiro is ultimately emboldened, not diminished, by the insults we hurl his way. Twitter, which served as a platform for this fleeting controversy, has long served as a platform for misinformation, radicalization, and hate. The deepfake, however funny, is a harmless use of a dangerous technology. Ben Shapiro’s wife is bone dry.
I’d like to suggest, though—in the spirit of optimism—that those few, jubilant days were a testament to our resilience. The great writers have been telling us for centuries that while the horrors of revolution and plague and civil unrest persist, so too do the little absurdities of daily life. That we are repeatedly able to recast anger and pain and disgust in the mould of comedy—to make lemonade with lemons, as it were—is proof of our collective spirit. It is what compels us to keep making our parodies, to keep scrolling, to keep seizing in fits of triumphant laughter.
When lockdown first started, I found myself utterly devoid of a schedule for the first time in my adult life. I went back to the comfort of video games, and while I did enjoy the demon-slaying in Doom: Eternal and the charming domestic island life I was developing in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it’s the world of Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero that I still constantly think about. Released in a series of five acts over the last decade, the magical realism point-and-click adventure is a wonder, and its mix of influences could only coexist as interactive fiction. You take control of different protagonists—or in some cases, just a general bystander—as you dial a phone hotline that provides tour info for imaginary places, participate in a play featuring a few down-on-their-luck people hanging in a bar, or take responsibility for a community-led television broadcast in the middle of a storm. The amount of work and effort put into every detail of this world is just impressive, especially considering it was made by only a three-man development team.
The world-building doesn’t stop within the game itself—the aforementioned hotline really exists and can still be called at the time of this writing. The entirety of the television broadcast you help produce is a full Youtube video with real-life actors. The world of Kentucky Route Zero uses the genre of magical realism for its intended purpose: showing how events in places in our own world can seem unreal. A winding country road loops into itself. The bar patrons end up working off their debts for all of eternity. Kentucky Route Zero’s themes of loss, regret, learning to let go, and the dangers of capitalism hit very hard for me, even more so as the year kept getting longer and longer. There isn’t any supplementary reading material or some video titled “KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO: EXPLAINED!” as there is with many games half as dense, but there are still secrets and discoveries shared amongst its small fan base. When discussions about the game were renewed due to its appearance on multiple Games of the Year lists, I discovered the existence of a hidden epilogue. A loose adaptation of Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man” at the bar, the epilogue could be accessed by starting the game over and heading back to the first location.
Kentucky Route Zero makes me miss so much that I took for granted, like having intimate conversations with strangers at a bar and feeling safe traveling to far-off destinations on the open road. But it also reminded me that every decision isn’t the end of the world; that it’s important to move on, keep building, and hope for a better future.
As a rule, people were not nice to each other in 2020. The pandemic accelerated the societal decline of common decency among family, friends and internet acquaintances. Political tensions reached a boiling point, then boiled over, and the heat is still on high. But in the midst of all this bad behavior, kindness returned to us in an unexpected form.
For as long as I can remember, the comedians who spoke through my screen—on Def Comedy Jam, Comedy Central Presents, and chronically disappointing HBO and Netflix specials—have been mean. Some aimed low, some aimed high, but they all went for the throat. Louis CK’s “Of Course, But Maybe” routine poked the sadistic synapses in our brains. Dave Chapelle’s sketches exposed the inner racist in all of us. Sarah Silverman shone a light on our filthiest impulses. And Steven Colbert took a stab at conservative hypocrisy. But then CK exposed himself to multiple young women; Chapelle realized his audience was taking his exploitation of racial stereotypes at face value, moved to Africa, and came back a grumpy old man; and both Colbert and Silverman kowtowed to the liberal pieties of network television.
Edgier humorists emerged in opposition to the stagnant stand-up milieu. Sasha Baron Cohen and Nathan Fielder expertly expose unsuspecting subjects at their worst moments, but their characters have diminishing returns: The more famous they get, the fewer people they can fool. Adult Swim established itself as a platform for meta-comics to take down comedy itself with absurdist caricature. Sam Hyde was a genius at nihilist satire until he became a full-on Nazi. Eric Wareheim was the physical embodiment of anti-comedy until he decided to be an Instagram influencer. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington remain the two funniest men alive, but I digress. It seems that, with just a few notable exceptions, mean comics either become disillusioned, get lost in their own personae or lose their edge.
In a year when almost all mean comedy fell flat, a new brand of funnyman was needed. Enter the kind comic, a figure who fills our cups with honey, not vinegar—an aloe to a scorched society that festers with the blight of mean-spiritedness. Nice Comedy is not a defense against criticism, censorship or cancellation; it does not require a smoothing of edges, a dulling of knives or a humor gun that shoots only blanks; it isn’t SNL. Rather, it is a radical kindness, a state of being that can only be brought on by a genuine compassion for humanity.
The renaissance of Nice Comedy began before last year, but it entered mainstream consciousness in the throes of the pandemic and will be written into our children’s history books as a 2020 innovation. It started with Detroiters, a Comedy Central program about a struggling ad agency that runs on the creative partnership of a hapless duo played by real-life best friends Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson. The show never took off the way it should have and was cancelled after two seasons, but it led to the development of the sensational Netflix sketch series (essentially an hour-long special in six parts) I Think You Should Leave. On both these series, Robinson, Richardson and writer Zach Kanin find comedy in awkward interactions and mine their interiorities for targets, rather than setting their crosshairs on the faults of others.
Next came Joe Pera Talks With You, a bite-sized Adult Swim show about a grandfatherly 30-something who teaches middle school choir in a small town on Lake Michigan and is obscenely nice to everyone he meets. The show gained some traction in 2019, but the pandemic brought it new attention, as content-hungry quarantiners scrambled for things to binge. Produced by Connor O’Malley, a top-tier anti-comic whose humor tends toward the mean, it’s a surprising ode to simple living and familial love, without any of the right-wing dog whistles that often poison these concepts.
Niceness managed to penetrate the fanatical world of podcasting too. Brendan O’Hare and Cory Snearowski’s This Is Branchburg, the tale of a fictionalized town in New Jersey told in scripted sketches, places complex characters in ridiculous situations. But even when stupidity or bad luck are played for laughs, there are always loving undertones, notes of compassion. It’s a modern radio play that avoids the pitfalls of a bad sitcom by introducing new characters before the old ones can fall into a comfortable rhythm.
All these comedic vehicles were built before 2020, but the most prescient piece of Nice Comedy came to fruition last year. How To with John Wilson, an unlikely HBO hit chronicling the wanderings of a socially awkward New Yorker with a keen eye for moments that show the city in all its grimy eccentricity, balances an unsparing lens with a sweet soul. Wilson’s candid snapshots let us in on personal dramas, scenes of romance and discord, depression and euphoria. Some feel potentially invasive, but they are all in the service of niceness, framing seemingly uncut interviews in which Wilson explores what makes people act the way they do. His subjects may be absurd, but he never treats them with cruelty. He spends a whole episode learning to make the perfect risotto for his elderly landlord. Though the show ends with the onset of the pandemic, it is the first documentary portrait of New York live I’ve ever found genuinely life-affirming.
It does not escape me that most of the comedic figures I’ve referred to here are cis straight white men. This demographic, of course, does not have a monopoly on kindness—quite the opposite. But perhaps that’s why it’s refreshing, at least for a nice Jewish boy like me, to watch people of my phenotype behave with decency, and be funny while they’re at it.
Mean comedy didn’t go away in 2020; it was all around us—a president whose megalomania transcended satire, the constant trolling of the radical right, answered by a feeble call for centrist unity on the left. If our nation survives the coming week, we’ll be introduced to an administration that is nicer than our current one, but much of this perceived humanity will exist only at the surface. In 2021, we must learn to distinguish the type of radical kindness demonstrated by 2020’s Nice Comedy renaissance from the sterile benevolence of the Democratic establishment and the corporations that sponsor it. Even if we can’t hold all artists to the John Wilson standard of compassion, we should demand it of our elected officials. More importantly, we should strive to be radically nice to each other.