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How do you take your berries and cream? The revival of the theatre of the absurd, online

Alt-TikTok often harks back to absurdist tropes.

The first few encounters you have with your TikTok “For You Page” (FYP) are critical in determining whether you are worthy of basking in the absurdity of niche microcelebrities, or are reduced to watching dance after misogynistic lip sync after unfortunate creation of a content house. Like all forms of popular culture, TikTok has amassed a multitude of subgroups. The not-so-serious rivalry between users about which ‘side’ of TikTok their FYP caters towards, ‘alt’ or ‘straight’, has generated some peculiar parallels with the reactions to absurdism in the early 20th century.

In basic terms, the ‘straight’ side of TikTok is just as described. Traditionally vanilla content: dances, challenges, family-friendly pranks. In turn, alt-TikTok rejects the ‘straight’ definition of ‘popular’. Here you’ll find cursed deep fakes, a lot of frogs, and almost too much irony.

Why do I think that a sample of Adam Driver saying “Good soup!” from Girls is so hilarious? Because I don’t find the Hype House’s vlogs particularly high brow. Why does Clov obey Hamm in Endgame? Something about a metaphor criticising class organisation, I didn’t get that far. 

Where I draw comparisons between alt-TikTok and absurdism is the rejection of mainstream entertainment values, through content which lacks reason. Absurdism relies on nothing making obvious sense to the audience — a notable development of the existentialist movement that was spreading across mid-century literature. After the Industrial Revolution and subsequent tragedies of World wars, Artists, creatives, and playwrights felt there was no use for God; how could there be any meaning to the universe when we had caused our own suffering? 

Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (1961) outlines what he believes to be the key elements of an absurdist piece of theatre (mainly inspired by the trends seen in Samuel Beckett’s works). Absurdism attempts to create structure in an apparently irrational world. Its form is stylistically chaotic and devoid of purpose. What I enjoy so much about absurdism is that I feel no shame in confusion. The confusion enhances the experience because you don’t need to be concerned with following the plot. Absurdism was introduced as a reaction to the increasing uncertainty people feared in the mid-20th century. Today, in a late-stage capitalist, post-pandemic world, TikTok users have nothing else to do but entertain themselves for the sake of entertainment.

A key feature of alt-TikTok and absurdism is complete misdirection. A video is successful if the creator has kept the audience’s attention for the whole minute, to then have a completely irrelevant punchline. This is evident in the “bad bleep, Addison Rae” format from around June 2020. Creators would have a ridiculous storytime video, about how they got away with arson for example, and would manage to add in the tag line (mentioning “straight-TikTok” star Addison Rae) just before the video ended. Think about the feeling when you were Rickrolled for the first time, now imagine it happened upwards of three times a day —successfully. Personally, I started to actively look for them and treat it like a game.

I’d turn to Waiting for Godot as an absurdist comparison. The audience is left in suspense the entire play, being promised that soon they will meet this Godot character. We are given so much false hope, and the expected thing never arrives. I suppose this is a reflection of the promised security, being financial, welfare, or others, of ‘post-war’ society. There’s no other way to describe it other than edging the audience. They sit through both acts (or alternatively, a fifty-second TikTok) just to see if they are given the satisfying ending. Samuel Beckett identified that reality does not guarantee satisfaction, and therefore absurdist works don’t either. We’re entertained, just at the expense of our ability to reason. 

My favourite aspect of alt-TikTok is how polarised the videos under one “sound” can be. Unlike many other platforms, memes on TikTok are often audio-based — it allows users to collect catchy soundbites or song snippets, and appropriate them for humorous effect. In an hour-long sitting, I’ll come across a selection of videos that use the same “sound” yet have incredibly different purposes. Take the titular “berries and cream” audio: the majority of the videos are people referencing the colonial ponytail or the unfortunate fringe-bob combo. However, as you get further into alt-TikTok, there is an increased chance that you’ll get a cursed demon cosplay to the same jingle. And it’s hysterical, for all the reasons it shouldn’t be. The setup does not make any sense. There is no punchline. But it’s still entertaining. 

In a similar way, I have dug myself into such a niche rabbithole that a screenshot of an Azealia Banks Instagram story post asking “are you ready to die claire?” is the most entertaining video I’ve seen in weeks. The context of the post was irrelevant — I couldn’t stop laughing.

We’ve grown up in and experienced a world where chaos is a daily occurrence. Our desensitisation to events, such as war, has shaped the parameters of comedy. Absurdists created plays immediately after incredibly similar tragedies. With no apparent reason to the world, the lack of cohesion is reflected in what desensitised people view as entertainment.