Is there a rush to fill the void left by Reply All’s indefinite hiatus? Yes. Slate has launched ICYMI, a new show about internet culture. Aptly, given the fact that Reply All went down over issues of race and inequity at Gimlet, ICYMI is hosted by women—Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher—one of whom is a woman of color.
ICYMI isn’t the only one looking to fill that void. Bridget Todd, who makes There Are No Girls on the Internet, is mining from the same endless vein of content. After all, Todd has written on Twitter about how Reply All was a source of inspiration for her show, and her title even comes from a 4Chan saying (don’t click that link unless your outrage capacity is at full).
Yes Yes No
Today, I, Jon Christensen, am going to fill the Reply All void myself! But instead of as a podcast I’m going to write it.
Reply All had a famous segment called “Yes Yes No” where hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt—both extremely online—would explain some very nuanced, many-layered joke from Twitter to fumbling internet fool—and boss—Alex Blumberg.
It was good audio because it was 1) relatable for people that spend some time online but have found themselves baffled by an inside joke that thousands of other people think is hilarious, and 2) the explanations were clear and simple and, despite the recent controversy, usually editorially inclusive and properly outraged about awful people and awful behavior.
And just yesterday morning, I woke up and did as one does—scrolled Instagram—and found myself in a “Yes Yes No” moment. I follow a terrible account called Drunk People Doing Things that helps remind me that I’m happier as a non-drinker than I ever was as a drinker. The Doing Things company makes money by making fun of people (doing stupid things). They were in a Taylor Lorenz article in the New York Times Tuesday for firing the team that made All Gas No Breaks, including creator Andrew Callaghan. The piece paints Callaghan as a young kid with a big talent for interviewing unsavory types who learns to use his platform for proper journalism—including talking to people who resorted to vandalism and violence at Black Lives Matter protests and later at election protests. Meanwhile, Doing Things is in the background pressuring him to get back to clickbait party content.
Back to our “Yes Yes No.” So the post I saw from Doing Things was this one of what looks to be a spring break St. Patrick’s Day celebration of college-aged folks.
It’s a typical Doing Things post meant to trigger engagement by tapping into some outrage over the politicization of large gatherings. And stupidly, I went into the comments to peek at the outrage. But what I saw surprised me.
The top comment had thousands of likes and two dozen replies, but I didn’t understand it:
If you already understand this joke—“not a soul in sight”—then you’re the “Yes” and I’m the “No.” If, like me, you’re a “No,” let’s dig in.
Just looking at the post, you can see that it shows a bunch of red-headed people running through a crowd. Is this a zombie thing? That’s why they don’t have souls? Does it have to do with Covid? Is it ironic racism towards red-headed people?
So we head over to Google. I searched “not a soul in sight ginger” to see if I could dig up some history of soulless red-headed folks that dated back to the Middle Ages.
The history I found dated back to the middle aughts in a South Park episode called “Ginger Kids.” I’ll quote directly from this excellent Quora response to give you the story:
Cartman hates "gingers", so he convinces the rest of the school kids that gingers have no souls, and should thus be feared. Using fear to manipulate people is Cartman's specialty, and he does it all the time - so it's no surprise that many of the other kids believe him, except for the three other main characters who are wise to Cartman's shenanigans. "Ginger Kids" are now feared and ostracized at South Park Elementary School.
In order to teach Cartman a lesson, the three other boys sneak into his house late at night while he is sleeping. They dye his hair red, and paint freckles on him. When he wakes up, he freaks out, and his mom takes him to the doctor - who explains that Cartman must have caught the rare disease "Gingervitis".
We could end this story here. It’s a fairly weak “Yes Yes No” because I solved it with a single Google search. But let me play this out a little further by relating it back to Reply All, and the change in culture that has happened since this episode of South Park.
The whole point of that South Park episode was, supposedly, to demonstrate how ridiculous racism is by using racist tropes in an absurd way. What we’re left with 15 years later is a persistent joke that it’s funny to say red-headed people don’t have souls. In terms of winning hearts and minds and exposing the inanity of pigmentation-based judgement, South Park failed.
For people of a certain age, South Park’s failure to be successfully liberal—especially if, like me, you haven’t watched it in at least 10 years—creates some cognitive dissonance. Its origins were a strong stand against the FCC’s morality censorship of the time. It felt very liberal. When we were young, its irreverence and everyone’s-a-target ethos were all OK because they were done with a knowledge of how awful it would be to actually say the things they said in a serious way. We could laugh at Cartman’s antisemitism because we were all in on the joke.
Times change. A piece in Vice from 2019 and another in The Outline from 2017 help explain how South Park went from tamping down conservative morality culture to aligning with conservative First Amendment culture. So weird to even write that. What was once liberal is now conservative.
This brings us back to Reply All and the void that is left. Some of the humor and ethos of Reply All is of the South Park era. The hosts were infected by the reactionary and contrarian—cynical—posture of the late 90s and early aughts. In episode 12, Alex Goldman talks about Weird Twitter as his favorite part of Twitter, saying, “They to me are the meat of Twitter. They're the value of Twitter.” And Alex Blumberg ties Weird Twitter to the ironic, cynical style of humor with, “The weird thing about Weird Twitter that I'm learning is like, I mean for all it's like, irony…these are just sort of silly jokes.” PJ even quotes this very South Park-iantweet from @dril, who has collaborated with South Park creator Trey Parker.
To stay true to the “Yes Yes No” format, it’s time for my wrap-up: I, a Gen X’er, failed to understand a joke about soulless redheads on Instagram today. The joke was made and amplified by a mostly Trumpian, anti-PC crowd, but its origins were from a South Park episode that aired during my Gen X formative media-watching years. All of this is wrapped up in the downfall of Reply All because any replacement for the void that Reply All has left must not be filled by a new show whose roots are planted in the same cynical soil.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this Yes Yes No.