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Culture

Why Paul Rudd’s coronavirus PSA for Millennials makes me feel ancient

For years our greatest minds have puzzled over a fundamental paradox of postmodern comedy: Is it possible to be so woefully, self-awarely out-of-touch that you end up on the right side of cool?

The conceit was tested yet again in a newly-released COVID-19 PSA tweeted by Pandemic Daddy and Auschwitz thirst-trapper Governor Andrew Cuomo, featuring that most meme-able of celebrities, Paul Rudd.

In the two-minute clip Rudd, dressed like Steve Buscemi in the “how do you do, fellow kids?” meme — complete with cap and skateboard — advises Millennials to be safe and wear a mask. Why Rudd was picked to address this younger generation comes down to a misunderstanding.

“Cuoms asks me, he’s like, ‘Paul, you gotta help. What are you, like, 26?’”

Rudd, a somehow ageless 51, didn’t correct him. And so, it is his lot to stand before various greenscreen backdrops — from a violet-hued skyline with SNES-era graphics to a graffiti-mottled alleyway — while misusing already-outdated slang, telling the solidly Gen Z icon Billie Eilish (over the phone, where she sounds like a teacher from “Peanuts”) “I wanna stan you. You’re so my bae.”

The message, expressed through TikTok dances, double-necked guitar riffing and the wanton playing of a boombox, is simply to mask up and “yeet this virus.” The joke, while superficially simple, demands a closer read.

Much effort has been exhausted to make Rudd look like a generational imposter, and the intentional gaffes had to have been designed by those who know that they are false notes. Yet the aesthetics of the spot, while deliberately archaic and noisy, feed into a still relevant style of humor pioneered by Gen X and advanced by Millennials.

If you are familiar with Rudd’s sometime collaborators Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and their regular editor Vic Berger, late of the website Super Deluxe and now of an endless stream of videos lampooning Trump, you recognize the trappings of this PSA. With it, we have reached the singularity and effectively killed the joke forever.

Heidecker, Wareheim and Berger cribbed the early-CG cringe of ‘90s public access shows and PSAs for their own anarchic ends on Adult Swim — often with a gleeful use of tinny electronic incidental music and gross-sounding Foley. In this Rudd-Cuomo teamup, we have an instance of the Adult Swim aesthetic returning to its original object of scorn: The pandering, over-produced PSA. The ad pretends that its outreach to young people is clumsy — that’s the point and also, in theory, its cool factor — and that makes the whole exercise even worse. The tactics long used to mock the stodgy and generationally tin-eared are now being used by those same establishment figures to appear hip.

Is it entertaining to see Rudd shout “vibe check” and appeal to the (now not-so-young) Millennial youth to protect their “dank squad” with PPE? Of course. But its target audience of Millennials can’t help but meet the announcement’s existence without the creep of our own fading youth.

I recall the day punk died: my father bought “American Idiot” on CD. I remember the first time a teacher attempted the “Soulja Boy” dance and, more recently, when a middle-aged coworker was heard to say “Yaaas kween” at a meeting. This too must I remember: the day Paul Rudd and the government of my home state used Bergeresque sights and sounds to communicate a dire public health message. It’s my Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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