(image) According to Wikipedia, “deadpan” is a uniquely American neologism less than a century old. The term arose from the slang term “pan,” for face: “Keep a dead pan,” a gangster told an associate in 1934’s The Gay Bride. In other words, don’t show your cards.
“Deadpan humor,” of course, is playing a joke straight, pretending you’re unaware of the punchline. It’s often related to “dark” or “black” humor, which makes light of otherwise serious situations, often with a cynical or satirical tone.
Why am I on about this now? Because I think as a society we’re rapidly shifting into a dark, deadpan culture, driven almost entirely by revelations around the NSA’s PRISM and related programs. We know we can’t pretend we’re not being monitored – so we resort to deadpan humor to handle that new reality.
Over the past few months, on the mailing lists and sites I read, and in the personal conversations I’ve had, the NSA keeps coming up as a deadpan or black humor punchline. On scores of conference calls and Google Hangouts, someone has joked about the government listening in. One time, while discussing a sensitive issue around use of data in our industry, one of my colleagues asked if anyone was taking notes. “Don’t worry, the NSA’s got that covered,” another colleague deadpanned. This kind of humor seems to be spreading all over our culture.
I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Black and deadpan humor is usually a response to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness – it thrives in authoritarian states or in places encountering deep turmoil (East Germany, Russia, Syria, Egypt).
I’m not sure we want to join those ranks. Do you see this happening as well?