View From The Side: Dapper Laughs; A Cautionary Tale For The 21st Century


The rapid rise and blink-and-you-missed-it fall of unfortunate moron Dapper Laughs is a cautionary tale for a digital age. The story has been framed as a battle between misogynistic ‘banter’ culture and outraged feminist activists – but these are battles that have been fought time and again in the past with little change in the narrative. The Dapper Laughs affair has been something different –and I’d suggest that the most interesting facet of this shrill, hyper speed saga is the pivotal role social media played at every stage, from Dapper Laughs’ meteoric rise to fame, to his hurried, embarrassing descent.

First up, a recap. Dapper Laughs is a comic ‘character’ created by self-identified comedian Daniel O’Reilly. O’Reilly comes from a background of working cruise ships as a family comedian. His precedent is the comedians who came up through the working mens clubs of the 70s, your Jim Davidsons and Bernard Mannings, men (always men btw) who told jokes that gave their audience a sense of power. Speaking to audiences largely made up of working class blokes, they would pick their targets with care, pulling laughs by punching down, taking the piss out of women, immigrants, poofs, easy targets really, but great vessels to make the weak feel strong.

Dapper Laughs – despite protests to the contrary – carried on this proud British tradition. He recently told Newsnight that he wanted to write ‘edgy’ humour, but his humour wasn’t on the edge of anything, it was coming directly from the heart of the power structures that shape our world today; the straight white man is king of the castle, and he can do or say what the fuck he likes.

This would be by the by – it would have taken years for O’Reilly to get anywhere (if he ever would have at all) if it wasn’t for his remarkable command of social media. Dapper Laughs existed on Vine, on Facebook, on Youtube, on anywhere but traditional media. A digital jester, he amassed over a million followers completely outside of the mainstream. His comedy grasped the zeitgeist in a way that the army of Oxbridge graduates commissioning newspaper articles and TV programs have so far struggled to – a generation of people want – crave – constant spikes of sensation. His was a twitter version of comedy, sketches truncated to 6 second bursts, ultra-viral, easily shared, easily absorbed, maximum impact with minimum effort on his part, and minimum engagement on his audiences. He keyed into that same urge that makes you check your email or facebook compulsively, searching for that tiny boost of a new message, our days divided up into mini bipolar surges of  excitement and disappointment as new information comes in, validating our existence, reminding us that yes! We’re here too!

If anything, the rise of Dapper Laughs proved Alvin Toffler’s futurist theory of the de-massifying of media. Like most of the ‘alternative’ numpties I hang around with, I simply had no idea who Dapper Laughs was until around a week ago. The explosion in information channels has allowed separate countries to flourish within a single border. That one guy can be a huge phenomenon to a whole sector of society and entirely unknown in another, suggests we are growing further and further apart, with no explicit acknowledgement that this cleavage might have far deeper consequences for the idea of ‘nation’ than we can predict. And it’s not a one way process – how many Dapper Laughs fans are going to know who the hell Steffi is?

Dapper Laughs’ problems began when ITV3 tried to act as though the old rules applied, as though the traditional route of underground buzz to overground success could still be followed. You can see how the commissioning editors would have seen the online stats, and thought – well this guy is a shoe in. He’s got a huge fanbase, his show is going to cost bugger all to make, he’s already selling out tours, and he’s willing to do a anything we tell him to to get famous. GET HIM ON THE BOX.

They didn’t engage with the idea that social media has allowed for increasingly polarised opinions. In the digital kingdom of Dapper Laughs, there was no one offering a dissenting voice- because dissenting voices just click away. There’s more than enough dick heads on the internet to bother slagging off one more. He told Newsnight that as he became popular he pushed the persona more and more – and this is something the internet, with its endless options allows. We live in a world where there have been seriously popular Reddit forums called, without irony, NiggerJailBait (unpleasantly self-explanatory) and Creepshots (dedicated to photos of women taken without their knowledge or consent). How far can too far go? In the cul-de-sacs and circle jerks of the online world, it would seem further and further.

But the mainstream media still exists in a place where the public expects some sort of representation of the ideas we have more or less consensus on. The problem now lies in the fact that this consensus, carefully sculpted by a couple of centuries of mass education and mass media, has cracked. As Dapper Laughs fans turned in on themselves, creating a self perpetuating community of lad bants, chewing their tails in a cycle of cheap misogyny and crap nob gags, a whole separate community of people broadly or completely committed to feminist ideology also exist, communicating through their own nodes of social media, and completely separate. This group – which I guess I’d identify with – also travels down its own paths of extremity, seeking ever greater topics to be outraged on, looking for that instant thrill, thriving on terrible statements tweeted by unreconstructed patriarchal figure. They (we) too are hunting for a banner to flock to, that proof of identity and meaning in a transient, insubstantial digital world.

So here – Dapper Laughs is pushed into the mainstream, cracking jokes at the communal well, and then the cracks in our society appear. Despite the fact that millions of people find his redcoat bullshit funny, he has announced that he’s retiring the ‘character’ – and the cleavage in what constitutes our culture has been given a real world metaphor. O’Reilly has emphatically stated in countless interviews that “Dapper Laughs is an extension of myself… I’ve always been Dapper Laughs, it was just a matter of putting it into videos and stuff.” Now he’s having to pretend that the digital golem he’s created is not him – he’s separating his mind into the ‘real’ Daniel O’Reilly and his pixelated Mr Hyde. I doubt it’s going to end well.

This is the thing – we’re living in a time where we haven’t come to grips with the breakdown of media, so we’re in this half way house of believing there is some sort of common consensus, and yet constantly being proved wrong. It’s the reason why you won’t hear a racist joke on the telly, but can’t look at the comments on a Youtube video without seeing someone typing some shite about Muslims. My feeling is the cracks are going to get a lot more obvious as the years roll by – the battle lines are being drawn and previous allegianences to ephemereal ideas such as nationhood are rusting in the digital rain.