A Grand Unified Theory of Why Elon Musk Is So Unfunny
Elon Musk has had a busy few days. This weekend, he ordered the “w” in the the sign on Twitter‘s San Francisco headquarters painted over, so that it read “Titter.” Then, on Monday, he changed his Twitter display name to “Harry Bōlz” before tweeting, “Impersonating others is wrong!” He later added: “I’m just hoping a media org that takes itself way too seriously writes a story about Harry Bōlz… ” Then, on Tuesday, he announced that the site’s unpaid “legacy” verification checks, formerly scheduled for removal on April Fool’s Day, would now disappear on April 20, or 4/20, the stoner holiday to which Musk has winkingly referred on many occasions. That evening, he gave an interview with a BBC reporter and, in a couple of tweets afterward, pretended to confuse the news organization with the shorthand for the porn category “big black cock.” Sharing part of the conversation, he commented, “Penetrating deep & hard with BBC.”
For anyone who’s remained a regular Twitter user since Musk’s takeover of the platform last year, none of this is remotely surprising: he logs on every day and, aided by an algorithm that forces his posts onto everyone’s feed, punishes us with a routine of garbled gags, corny jokes, and pilfered memes. (Full disclosure: Musk once re-posted a meme I made, and it still makes me feel unclean.) Yet Musk wasn’t always so eager to have the public think him a funnyman, as when he carried a sink into Twitter HQ in October to mark his acquisition of the company, tweeting “let that sink in.”
Years ago, in fact, Musk was content to appreciate comedy as a mere spectator, and in fairness, he was not without taste. In 2016, he tweeted admiringly of the “absurdist humor” in Samuel Beckett’s timeless play Waiting for Godot, and recommended the hilariously awkward reality show Nathan for You. He also trumpeted a Tesla feature that allows you to play scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He didn’t, as he does now, obsess over his philosophy of humor per se. True, he might reply “Haha awesome :)” when tagged in a flattering meme about himself, and he never quite grasped the vernacular of comedy — he once called a Liam Neeson cameo in the sitcom Life’s Too Short a “sketch” — but his engagement was measured, light, unassuming. He had nothing to prove.
So how did we get from a Musk who enjoyed a modest chuckle now and then to a Musk who hosts Saturday Night Live and fancies himself Memelord of the Universe? Where did his current sense of humor come from? He’s never quite addressed this in the media, nor did he respond to an email asking him to name his comedic influences, but we can still create something of a forensic picture.
To begin with, Musk’s cultural background seems to have disposed him to British humor (which he has called “the best“), a style that can toggle between dry wit and edgy or offensive incitement (“Great show!” he said of U.K. comic Ricky Gervais’ 2022 Netflix special SuperNature, which contained jokes mocking trans people). Musk has a long history of crossing lines himself, dating back to childhood: father Errol Musk recalled how he would insult adults by calling them “stupid” if he disagreed with them, and once got pushed down the stairs by a classmate after he made a mocking comment about the suicide of the boy’s father.
But beyond provocation, Musk clearly adores anything that can be placed in the category of “nerd” comedy: if a meme is in some way esoteric, requiring specialized knowledge to understand, he seems to regard it as a proof of intelligence. Because only a smart person would find it funny, right? This helps to explain his stated love of Reddit, where dorkiness and its attendant puns, references and values form a distinct social in-group. As a humor community, it’s the broad equivalent of where the STEM kids sit in the school cafeteria. Musk seems to have been drawn to it by the Tesla and SpaceX fanboys active there, initially promoting a SpaceX engineer’s Q&A session on the “Ask Me Anything” subreddit before giving his own interview about theoretical missions to Mars on r/space. In 2016, he took delight in watching redditors savage a Fortune editor who had written about issues stemming from a Tesla Autopilot crash.
So: Musk likes jokes that 1) take his side 2) foster a sense of geek community and pride, and 3) are occasionally spiky, hostile or somehow violate a social taboo — this latter principle gives him his trollish quality. In the course of his online life, Musk also appears to have missed much non-Reddit internet comedy in the past decade, from the Dadaist gems of so-called “Weird Twitter” to the horny, artsy political anarchism of Tumblr. Thus his posting, in 2019, of a meta-meme about the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins whose text font dates it to an earlier generation of Reddit-favored “image macros” long out of fashion. This isn’t a meme you would’ve randomly stumbled across on social media in 2019 — it’s something you might get if you Googled “meme about memes.”
To truly understand Musk’s comedic sensibility, however, we have to ask ourselves how and why he started flaunting it in the first place. Remember, he showed no particular interest in this stuff in the early years of his Twitter account — he never tweeted “lol” or weighed in on memes until 2018, when he suddenly couldn’t quit yukking it up about them, encouraging followers to send him their “dankest.” (“Dank” as a descriptor for memes was itself a bit passé by then, to say nothing of a 47-year-old man typing the word “your” as “ur.”) What could possibly account for this sudden shift, the attempt at youthful cool?
The most obvious answer is one that Musk has given himself: he wanted attention. In 2021, during testimony in a shareholder lawsuit over Tesla’s 2016 acquisition of solar panel company SolarCity, he explained that his humor creates favorable publicity for the automaker: “If we are entertaining people, they would write stories about us and we don’t have to spend on advertising which would reduce the price of our cars,” Musk said. “I do have a sense of humor,” he also noted. “I think I’m funny.”
Yet the timing of his pivot to would-be Twitter comic also seems significant. While Musk was already a public figure by 2018, this was the year he cemented his place in pop culture: He started dating Grimes, and attended the Met Gala with her. He appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he accepted a puff on a cigar of tobacco and cannabis. He launched his own Tesla Roadster into space.
Behind this glitz, however, his life was going sideways. He told the New York Times that August that the past year had been “excruciating,” as well as “the most difficult and painful year of my career.” Tesla’s Model 3 had been stuck in “production hell,” and Musk said he was working unreasonably long hours, camping out at the factory and nearly missing his brother’s wedding. He also claimed the work was taking a toll on his health. With the compounding pressures, he became more erratic on Twitter, with some board members reportedly concerned that he was taking the powerful, fast-acting insomnia drug Ambien — but, instead of going to sleep, binging on the social app.
Two infamous Musk tweets define this phase. That June, he offered a submersible craft to rescuers trying to extract a youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. When a British cave diver involved in the effort dismissed it on Twitter as a PR stunt, Musk replied angrily, calling him “pedo guy” in a tweet that sparked a defamation suit. (Musk eventually won the case, with his lawyers arguing the comment was a generic “joke” he had quickly retracted.) Then, in August, Musk tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share. Though many interpreted that figure as an allusion to weed, the tweet caused Tesla’s stock to jump. Only weeks later, Musk changed his mind about the company going private, but he had to settle fraud charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission, as the original tweet was misleading and “led to significant market disruption.” The SEC deal also stipulated that he would step down as Tesla’s chairman, with he and the company each paying a $20 million penalty.
Musk this year won a subsequent shareholder lawsuit over the matter, in this case testifying that the $420 price was not a joke. But he has prolifically posted “420” comments and cited the number 69 — also a sexual position — ever since. Tesla lowered the price of the Model S to $69,420 in 2020, and Musk is particularly fond of reminding everyone that his birthday, June 28, falls 69 days after 4/20.
Taken altogether, Musk’s recklessness through the summer and fall of 2018 has the air of a midlife crisis: two years after his third divorce, he was dating a celebrity 16 years his junior while pushing himself to physical exhaustion as his company lost hundreds of millions of dollars. He apparently found refuge in memes while indulging a newfound impulse to shitpost, whether that meant firing off brazen insults, slapping unfunny captions on content he’d seen elsewhere, or racking up engagement by mentioning the weed and sex numbers. This telegraphed a growing need to be a man of the people, a desperation to be liked.
His failure to develop a more amusing perspective from there can be chalked up to the sycophants who praise his every word, plus an unshakeable nostalgia for an era when he was widely characterized as a visionary — and criticized far less. Consider his affection for Doge, a meme he temporarily added to the Twitter interface this month though its heyday was 2013, the first year Fortune named him “Businessperson of the Year.” Or his recent botching of the innuendo “That’s what she said,” popularized by the sitcom The Office (2005-2013).
Meanwhile, Musk has continued to develop an explicitly ideological concept of humor that ensures only his allies will ever laugh with him. In 2018, he declared that socialists “are usually depressing” and “have no sense of humor.” (He then proclaimed himself a socialist.) By 2022, when he got in a fight with the satirical website Hard Drive over not crediting them for a headline he posted, he was basically arguing that leftists can’t have comedy at all. “The reason you’re not that funny is because you’re woke,” he tweeted. “Humor relies on an intuitive & often awkward truth being recognized by the audience, but wokism is a lie, which is why nobody laughs.” Instead, Musk has preferred the satirical news from the right-leaning Babylon Bee, which he reinstated on Twitter weeks after his takeover; it had been banned in early 2022 for sharing a transphobic article.
This means that on top of all the other reasons Musk struggles to craft a solid or relatable joke, he is now bound by the conceit that comedy must usually target his enemies. Because he is ridiculed by online leftists, chided by Democratic leadership, and unfavorably depicted in the “liberal” press, he has fallen in with culture warriors whose humor is built around trolling these factions. And how do they accomplish that? By daring the other side to “censor” or “cancel” them for repeating the same tired shit about Hunter Biden’s laptop or pronouns or soy lattes. There’s no organic or dynamic potential here; it’s just manufactured grievance about how “they” want to silence free speech. No wonder Musk said that with his arrival CEO, “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.”
How far he’s fallen from Waiting for Godot: these days, he’s replying “lmao” to tweets calling Bill Gates and George Soros the “Vax Street Boys.” And that trajectory is sadly irreversible. It didn’t have to be this way, but when you’re as high-profile and thin-skinned as Musk, it’s all too easy to turn what impoverished sense of humor you had into both a defensive posture and a way to needle others. If someone makes a joke at your expense, it inflicts real damage that must be answered for. If you, as one of the most powerful people on the planet, take a swipe at them — well, you can always say you were kidding.