Humor and Y2K:

On the Value of Millennial Humor

Richard Landes

July 1999

Humor can, when well performed, have a significant impact on public discourse:

Humor has played two primary roles in millennial dynamics. Under normal conditions, the mordant humor of the owl ridicules millennial enthusiasts and marginalizes anyone who finds the call of the rooster attractive (e.g., the treatment of Christian Science by the British magazine Punch in the early 20th century, Chaplin’s Little Dictator). Under millennial conditions, the raucous iconoclastic humor of the roosters, subverts normal discourse (e.g., the Feast of Fools, Rabelias as studied by Bakhtin; Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters at the beginning of the 1960s). More significantly, the most worrisome aspects of millennial humor lie in its lack: humorless owls and roosters both represent a stand that bodes ill for the level of social discourse

The most needed humor, at a millennial moment, is the humor that laughs not at but with, the humor that is gently but firmly mocks all folly, that of owls and roosters, and the caricatures they make of each other – chicken littles and ostriches. In order to keep open the channels of public communication open, thus avoiding millennial isolation and distrust, we need to deploy humor, a humor that transgresses without fanaticism, that releases without violence, that has us see ourselves and others in the same comic light. Indeed, a really energetic and successful campaign of global humor could significantly shift the thrust of modern culture. Modernity rose in the second millennium on the wings of the discovery of the "self," the "individual" – powerful, exhilarating, profoundly narcissistic. In order to reverse some of the more toxic dimensions of this individualism – its alienation, its solepsism, its consuming pollution – we need to help the third millennium mark the discovery of the "other." Humor offers a key to this process, the opening of a threshold through which we can step on the way to great mutual understanding. In other words, humor needs to play a key role in the emergence of a sane global community. Here is a case where thinking as a community, if it is well done, makes us so.

Proposal: A Series of Workshops of Millennial Humor

To invite both local and celebrity humorists whose humor shows aptitude for the millennial challenge to a workshop where we would;

  1. brief them on
  1. invite them to work up material in improvisational settings with feedback
  2. conclude with a public performance of millennial humor.

Day I: Millennial Briefing: Y2K and other craziness

Day II: (a week later): Public Performance of Stand-up comedy acts entitled: An Evening of Y2K Humor.


Millennial scholars with a sense of humor

Scholars specializing in humor

Y2K activists

Local Humorists and Comedians (Boston)