The setting is an unassuming two-bed hotel room. A man, tucked under the covers, says goodnight to his friend, who is pictured curled up in a bed on the other side of the room. Our videographer turns toward the wall, ready to call it a night. “Oh shoot,” he says. “I forgot to get my water.” He turns the camera back to his friend, who is now standing on his bed, ominously facing the wall not unlike the poor sap at the end of The Blair Witch Project. The video ends.
This Tok Tok’s format, which swiftly became remarkably popular, is relatively simple, and yet fascinatingly bizarre. We begin with the innocuous, familiar ritual of cordial bedtime wishes, and end with a shocking, and always nonsensical, reveal. After user @22urdumaf posted the original video, it started to inspire hundreds of Tik Toks that followed the same wacky format—each version imbued with an increasing air of total absurdity. One video ends with someone riding out of his bedroom on a motorcycle; another with a man hovering over the videographer’s bed, covered head-to-toe in shaving cream.
Attempting to unravel the actual meaning of these Tik Toks is an endeavor that will most likely only yield frustration. But as Tik Tok climbs the ranks at the speed of light and becomes the world’s most popular app, one thing remains clear: When it comes to these bite-sized videos, more often than not, the medium is the message. The video features themselves—the ability to stitch or duet your video with any other users’, the way that sound bytes and filters act as a thread between peoples’ content – tend to end up doing more legwork than the substance itself.
This is also the case with the general tone of Tik Tok videos. While it is inevitable that, given that the app has over a billion subscribers, it has a vast variety of videos, a surreal, absurd temperament is becoming more and more prominent on its interface. And not only this, but these videos nail the intricate purposes and formats of the tenets of Absurdism and Surrealism.
The practice of Absurdism stems from the inherent human need to uncover a deeper meaning in our existence, and the ultimate impossibility of this endeavor. Nineteenth-century European philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche posited that there is a fundamental anxiety ingrained into human existence which is based on the knowledge that we have ultimate control over our own lives – that there isn’t an obvious guidebook or thread that connects us all. Essentially, existence is unruly and ungovernable.
For those fraught with anxiety in a world that is not easily decipherable, turning to absurdist art can become a critical endeavor. Works like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot attempt to reconcile our place in a Godless world, while fiction by Franz Kafka seeks to make sense of a senseless political landscape. An explosion of absurdist and surrealist art emerged after both World Wars, with artists looking to fathom the brutality that they had borne witness to. Surrealism was born, in part, in an attempt to take control of the senselessness of existence and own it. Salvador Dalí’s famous surrealist paintings, for example, constructed nonsensical landscapes with a great deal of intention and formal artistic technique. More recently, comedian Eric Andre has pushed the talk-show format into the realm of the surreal, taking something we all know and love – celebrity culture – and purposefully turning it into something uncanny.
Which brings us to the present day. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that we are in the process of being swept away in a whirlwind of economic fragility, a deteriorating planet, social injustice, and a deadly virus that keeps going away and then coming back angrier than before. Of course, all of this affects all of us monumentally. But it affects Gen Z in a unique way. Growing up in such a fraught and precarious world has made a lot of younger people feel as though they don’t have control over—or even access to—a future. Owning the absurdity of it all, then, can be a powerful way to take back control of the situation.
As the first generation to not really know what life was like before social media, apps and a flurry of content have infiltrated every corner of Gen Z’s lives. And, though we are often condemned by older generations for our preoccupation with social media, it has become a terrain on which we can breed unconventional, but largely effective, comedic art. The other day, I encountered a video by user @sammyhaigmusic of a man playing his trumpet into a bowl of jello. User @mikeyyk88 has become popular for videos where he lip syncs to ringtones, sounds of people coughing, and babies crying. And who could forget @connerzs, who coined the term “perpendicular grocery shopping”: an act in which you and your cart lie on your sides and the grocery store? All of these videos resonate with us for more reasons than that they’re simply funny. In a world where older comedians think that the way to joke about COVID is to actually joke about COVID, this generation knows that it’s time to really capitalize on the strangeness of it all. And they’re really, really good at it. André Breton, a French surrealist philosopher, once said that the movement of surrealism intended to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” And perhaps a Tik Tok of a man painted in shaving cream is precisely what we need to achieve this super-reality in the 21st century.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.