LOLcats are the new ethnic joke

Posted in Art, Random thoughts at 9:22 pm by ducky

You are reading my blog, so you probably do enough web surfing to have seen the meme/joke/fad called LOLcats. (Unless you’re my mom. Hi, Mom! In the LOLcat genre, people put captions with a particular patois onto pictures of cats. Note that the language used for the captions is “bad” — incorrect by the standard rules of English — but relatively consistent.)

Why are they funny? Why are they popular? I think LOLcats are the new ethnic joke.

First, the cats are stupid, in much the way that the butts of old ethnic jokes were stupid. Having stupid protagonists makes it easier to set the audience up to form an expectation of “reasonable” behaviour, and then deliver a completely different behaviour. That’s funny.


Q: Why did the blonde scale the chain-link fence?
A: To see what was on the other side.

The joke is only funny because “to see what was on the other side” is not reasonable behaviour.

In a similar manner, the LOLcats can be stupid. Consider this one. There are lots of reasonable reasons why the cat’s leg is shaved, yet the cat comes up with a preposterous one.

Second, a lot of the appeal in both jokes comes from shared context. Recognizing shared context feels intimate, and that makes it easier for us to laugh. Consider:

Two black guys are walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, when they realize they both have to take a leak. There’s no place else to go, so they just take a whiz off the side of the bridge. While they are taking their leaks, one says to the other, “Dang! That water’s cold!” The other one says, “Yeah, and deep, too!”

This joke depends upon the audience knowing that there is a stereotype of black men having really long penises. Blonde jokes depend upon the stereotype of blondes being stupid; many also depend upon a stereotype of blondes being promiscuous and/or pretty; some also depend on a stereotype of brunettes being intelligent yet unattractive.

A lot of the LOLcats jokes are also only funny if you have shared content. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring form of the speech: “I’m in ur X Y-ing ur Z“, “Do not want“, or “Oh hai“. We sometimes share recognition of the recurring content of invisible objects, buckets, and cheeseburgers.

Why are buckets funny? Only because they are shared context. It doesn’t matter what the running jokes are, only that they are understood by everybody. (Why was JJ Walker’s “Dy-no-mite!” funny in the 1970s? Why was “NOT!” at the end of sentences funny in the late 1980s? Why was “Don’t have a cow!” funny in the 1990s? Because they were shared context that bound us together.)

Ethnic jokes could be really funny, but it is also clear just how damaging they can be. (I’m ashamed to say that when I first met a Polish boy in my youth, I was surprised that he wasn’t stupid.) I am glad that I don’t hear/read nearly as many ethnic jokes as I did thirty years ago.

LOLcats are a perfect substitute for ethnic jokes. The cats won’t get their feelings hurt if your jokes make them look stupid. No cat will mind if a shared understanding develops among us humans that all cats like cheeseburgers or like to play with invisible toys. We can make as much fun of cats as we want, and the jokes will be funny.

And that’s a good thing.


  1. Best Webfoot Forward » LOLcats representing the human spirit said,

    November 20, 2008 at 10:52 am

    […] while back, I wrote about LOLcats being a stand-in for ethnic groups, allowing us the humour of shared stereotypes but without having […]

  2. Neil Zirbel said,

    November 9, 2010 at 9:30 pm


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