Neo Yokio: A Testament to the Rise of Neo-Dadaism

At first glance, Ezra Koenig’s Netflix original series Neo Yokio feels like satire. Everything from its absurd script to what could best be described as its novel attempt at animation screams a parody of anime — a type of entertainment familiar to even those who don’t watch it. Viewers have been quick to point out that the main character’s dialogue parallels the trademark surrealist tweets of celebrity Jaden Smith, the actor who plays him. Neo Yokio’s star-studded cast is a big drawing factor with the unusual combination of Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Jason Schwartzman, and Alexa Chung, in addition to Smith himself.

Neo Yokio follows the story of Kaz Kaan, a young adult exorcist and fashionable socialite. The pacing of the show is eccentric; it feels like the storylines are both too fast, but too slow-moving. It has a habit of introducing fifteen different plot points, and then addressing none of them in the episode. The show isn’t without its cornucopia of vividly colorful characters, each with a uniquely absurd personality and dialogue style. The general consensus has been that the show leaves viewers confused yet amused. What’s interesting is that producer Ezra Koenig (frontman for beloved alt-pop band Vampire Weekend) shies away from establishing the series as pure satire. According to Koenig, much of the show was crafted to pay homage to iconic ’80s and ’90s anime and manga works like Tokyo Babylon and Jeeves and Wooster. To the shock of many people who were left dumbfounded by both the premise and the plot progression, most of the infamous one-liners of the show were probably meant to be genuine.

While the show has been met with mixed praise from critics — it received a 30% on Rotten Tomatoes  — I have to wonder why so many people like me, whose exposure to anything remotely resembling anime is stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender or Voltron, found Neo Yokio so utterly fascinating. The week that the entire series was released on Netflix, screencaps from episodes flooded my Twitter feed. I saw themed blogs and online merch shops selling Neo Yokio-themed apparel sprout overnight. Either people really hated it or really loved it, but why couldn’t they stop talking about it? The answer lies, I believe, in the resurgence of dark humor that permeates so much of current internet culture.

A word that’s being passed around to explain this kind of humor specific to millennials is “neo-Dadaism.” If you aren’t familiar with Dadaism, it’s a movement in art that relies on irrationality and rejecting traditional notions of art. Like its predecessor, neo-Dadaism rejects conventional forms of humor and art, “convention” here translating to that which is directly relatable. People don’t want to see a comic of a man looking sad after getting dumped; they want the final panel to have the cartoon shark on the man’s shirt come to life and say to him, “If you think about it, nothing matters, Steve.” In the Washington Post article “Why is Millennial Humor So Weird,” Elizabeth Bruenig calls comedy and art of the postmodernist era “a mingling between humor and horror.” She’s not far from the mark if you take a look at what’s been passing as counterculture for more than a decade. Shows on Adult Swim predate the era of oversharing online via 140 characters. Even now, popular shows like BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have gained vast numbers of devoted fans. The devotion to these shows is unlike Trekkie culture or Friends fanatics. Instead of fondness and admiration for the cohesive storylines, relatable characters, and clear-cut moral lessons that are characteristic of ’90s/early 2000s TV, much of “absurdist” television is void of any meaning at all. It’s the meaninglessness itself that attracts fans.

If I had to present the key piece of evidence of the resurgence of Dadaism, I’d look no further than the analysis of a tweet posted in 2012 by user @wint which says: “IF THE ZOO BANS ME FOR HOLLERING AT THE ANIMALS I WILL FACE GOD AND WALK BACKWARDS INTO HELL.”

If you search the phrase “I will face God and walk backwards into Hell” on Google, it yields over 1.8 million results. People are obsessed with this phrase so much that they tweet, blog, and post on Facebook about it. It’s even cited on various mainstream websites like Buzzfeed and Thought Catalog. The tweet/phrase reads like a line your high school AP Lit teacher might ask you to analyze. Yet if you analyze it and try to come up with a definitive interpretation, you come up empty. There lies its true draw.

But what does this have to do with Neo Yokio? Why was its reception so varied yet so strong? Neo Yokio has been applauded for achieving the status of a TV show equivalent of a shit-post. To figure out why that would be a good thing, we have to explore the motives behind this kind of humor. While it might be a stretch to connect the toll of late capitalism on millennials with their online shit-posting, you can’t ignore that as the real world begins to look bleaker and bleaker, mainstream content is just becoming more eccentric. After one glance at the current state of politics, the economy, the environment, and the overall cloudy outlook for the future, one can’t help but wonder if all this absurd humor is just a major generation-wide coping mechanism.

Despite it sounding kind of like bullshit nihilistic jargon, I believe that the theory of neo-Dadaism has merit. Perhaps searching for meaning in a world that seems devoid of it is too depressing to be the defining factor of a generation. After all, maybe you don’t deserve this big Toblerone.

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