What are memes? Why are they funny? Where did they come from? We may not ever find the answers to these questions, but we can answer one question that might have popped up for you: What was the first meme ever?
This questioon was the focus of an exhaustive and obviously highly important journalistic investigation by Thrillist.
Their investigations focused on and discarded a number of early internet memes, from All Your Base Are Belong To Us, to the influential world of early image macros. For anyone like me who spent many many hours on the early internet looking up 'funny pics' with white text over the top and then saving them to a folder called 'funny pics', it wouldn't be a surprise to hear that image macros were the first example of a meme - but that was not so.
According to meme historians interviewed by Thrillist, the first meme was actually the dancing baby. Remember this guy?
The dancing baby, originally named 'Baby Cha-Cha' by its creators, was first created around 1996 by Michael Girard and Robert Lurye, intended to be just an animation sample for the Character Studio software. The baby was later tweaked by Ron Lussier, an animator working at LucasArts, and then spread as all early memes were: through email.
Know Your Meme tracks the spread of the Dancing Baby to a charmingly early internet page called the Dancing Baby Homepage, as created by artist Rob Sheridan. From here it went mainstream, with the media catching on and reporting on the phenomemon, and remixes appearing across the internet.
The height of Dancing Baby's influence was, of course, its appearance on Ally McBeal as a recurring hallucination experienced by the titular character, though like all good cultural phenomena it was also spoofed by the Simpsons as a 'dancing Jesus' webpage.
Of course the Thrillist investigation also identifies even earlier pre-internet memes, such as humanity's love of drawing giant phalluses that dates back even to before recorded history, though that's getting a little too abstract for me.
More recent non-internet memes include the Stussy S, which spread through schools and scribbles on childrens' pencilcases and later became a proper internet meme, or even this cartoon from the 1920s that displays a strikingly similar format to modern memes.
However, memes live on the internet, so we're just going to call it: Dancing Baby was the first ever meme. Ever.
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