“Millennial” can be a weird term. It can be derogatory (“Ugh, those millennials. They’re all about Tumblr and Snapchat, not real life.”) or descriptive. Either way, millennials make up the country’s largest generation, with 75.4 million people identifying as a millennial, compared to 74.9 million Baby Boomers.
Alex Edelman is intimately familiar with both the perks and the drawbacks of being a millennial. The comedian performed a show titled Millennial at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, earning the prize for the fest’s best comedic newcomer. But what does Edelman think a millennial is? And how does that generation want to be defined? The A.V. Club found out when it talked to Edelman backstage at Riot L.A.
The A.V. Club: Your show is about being a millennial. What does that mean and how is that represented in the show?
Alex Edelman: I started reading a lot about millennials based on what people who didn’t like millennials were writing. It was weird because it was a target along with other things that I felt really strongly about, like David Foster Wallace. I really thought his mindset and writing spoke to younger people. I became curious about why a lot of my favorite things were targets for people who were talking about young people. Also, I felt really condescended to because my friends aren’t apathetic or any of the things young people get bashed over. So, I went to this research center in New York, and they gave me a test to rank how much of a millennial I was. I started to care about that a lot.
AVC: How old are you?
AVC: That puts you right in the cradle of millennialism.
AE: Right in the juncture. And most of my friends—with respect to crazy old people—are millennials.
So I did this show about what it means to be millennial, how we stack up against other generations, and how I personally feel about being compared to other members of the group.
Most of my friends are young comics. My favorite thing about the U.K. and the U.S. comedy scenes is that I have a strong peer group of guys who have really strong points of view, but because they’re young people, no one wants to hear stuff beyond anecdotes. No one wants to hear anyone like me pontificate, which is fair. So, I did a show where I can pontificate through personal stories.
AVC: What do people say about millennials in general?
AE: People say that millennials are lazy.
AVC: They surf on their parents for a long time.
AE: They’re not driven. They surf on their parents for a long time, that’s one. They’re apathetic, which is another. They’re disengaged.
Then there are ones that are less pejorative, like that millennials don’t want to own things, which is kind of true. We want access to things, which is why Uber is more preferable to most young people over having a car. I think we’ve realized buying stuff won’t make you happy. In the early ’90s, there was an archetype of people who saved up for Porsches and bought Porsches when they were in their 50s. Then they would write books about how they realized the Porsche wasn’t what made them happy, so they gave it away and went to Tibet.
AVC: That’s a midlife crisis.
AE: Exactly. So, we’re having a midlife crisis without thinking that the first bit is going to make us happy. That’s the crisis for young people.
AVC: But the criticism there would be that a lot of millennials can have a midlife crisis and still have a backup. They can be on their parents’ insurance; they can live at home.
AE: That’s true. You can be on your parents’ insurance until you turn 26.
It’s actually a big problem because there are some people like that. A lot of it is need-based for young people. Student debt is the number-one type of debt. Tuition rates have gone up such an enormous amount, so you get young people getting out of college with no recourse other than to move home. With the housing bubble popping, and the economy being what it is, it’s driven the mindset of young people. Also, there’s a scattered media landscape—another buzzword. There are a lot of options, but we also have a lot of problems that other generations haven’t ever had to deal with.
AVC: People look at Buzzfeed or whatever, and they say, “Buzzfeed is ruining everything!” But the way younger people use media isn’t the same as the way older people use media. The success of Buzzfeed isn’t the reason small newspapers are going under. It’s successful for that reason, but a rising Buzzfeed doesn’t directly correlate to a falling local paper.
AE: Long stories will always be the thing you can get people into with shorter form stuff. Like, my show is an hour, which is crazy long for a young comedian. No one wants to see a 26-year-old for an hour. I can guarantee you that.
AVC: Except for 26-year-olds.
AE: Even 26-year-olds are like, “Oh my god, are you serious?” Standup feels to me very short, so my show is comprised of shorter stories with subtext that I identify at few points during the show.
I think people’s attention spans are longer than we give them credit for. It’s just that there’s so much stuff that’s garbage. The New York Times did stories for a long time that weren’t for a young readership. So, short stuff that came along that was much less of a risk and commitment. It’s a quality thing.
You’re right. Buzzfeed and new media sites aren’t killing old media, but they pay for the stuff of more quality, and the stuff of more quality registers. Like, Making A Murderer and Serial aren’t exactly brief commitments, but people get into them.
AVC: There are a lot of TV shows that aren’t quickies.
AE: Exactly. Breaking Bad is not a brief commitment. There are few things on media of value that are very short. And people demand consistent output. So, maybe Buzzfeed and Twitter, their short stuff does kill old stuff, or rather old media with long stuff, but people still demand consistent quality through that.
AE: You don’t think so?
AVC: There’s stuff on Buzzfeed like, “10 Things You Didn’t Know Kim Kardashian Said.” Is there quality to that?
AE: No, but I don’t think they pull dedication in following.
People who came to see Millennial at Edinburgh in 2014, I wouldn’t retain those people if I didn’t do a follow-up, so I did a follow-up last year.
AVC: Millennial 2?
AE: It was called Everything Handed To You, which is basically like Millennial 2. There wasn’t a ton of explicit stuff about millennials. I made it a lot more intricate because I just wanted to try, but it’s never changed: I think people follow someone they know can do consistently good stuff. Young people, old people…
AVC: It doesn’t matter who it is.
AE: Exactly. Musicians, The New York Times. Kanye West has done a lot of really good albums in a row, so a lot of people like him; one dud, and it’ll be a thing. Because of this hyper-focus thing, everyone wants new stuff. That’s why even comedians are turning over hour sets every year. I don’t know if I can do three hours in three years, but people sort of demand that pace now. Quick is the best.
AVC: And they expect you to workshop a joke quickly. Something on Twitter has to be right. It has to be good.
AE: Exactly. People want the perfect wording in their tweets, and they want the perfect wording for stand-up.
For me, that’s that hard part. To workshop an hour, I need to either do it in clubs in New York City or I need to move somewhere where they are accustomed to hours like Australia or England. For my last show, I moved to England a month before the festival and just did an hour every day in small rooms where they’re acclimatized to having comedians prepare their hours for Scotland.
It’s hard because on the workshop stage, the appetite for content is much, much greater, but the patience has gone way down. The challenge in doing an hour now is making sure it’s of an quality that you would do it if you were workshopping it five years before.
AVC: What do you think is true about millennials?
AE: I think we don’t want to own things.
AVC: That’s true. Millennials might say, for instance, that Tidal is too expensive. $9.99 a month is too expensive.
AE: I think that’s too expensive.
AVC: It’s less than if you bought something.
AE: Yeah, you’re right.
AVC: It just seems like a lot because you used to be able to get a song or an album for free.
AE: The problem is that we don’t want to buy things, but we think access should be cheap. So that’s driven the market down for entertainment. I also think it makes a difference that Tidal isn’t a physical product.
AVC: But Netflix isn’t a physical product.
AE: We’re okay paying for that because it’s access to such a sheer amount of stuff that you can’t get. Remember when Netflix came out, you couldn’t get that stuff anywhere else. You could get everything on Netflix. Before the original programming was what everyone remembered about it. Remember when Netflix just started, but you could get any DVD from them? You could get The Day The Clown Cried on DVD. Stuff that has been out of print for years. So, it was the access that was originally the lure to Netflix. Just the sheer level of access. But, with Tidal, like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube—if you could get every single movie ever on YouTube, Netflix might see its market share go down, but we value access.
It’s not that people don’t want to buy things anymore. It’s just that the capital of keeping up with Joneses is no longer, “Look at my nice car.” It’s, “We went to Tenerife,” or, “We went to India for a week and a half.” Instagram is now the capital. Your car might be good for a few good pictures on Instagram, but you know…
AVC: You’ve got to have the $35 T-shirt, not the $8 T-shirt.
AE: I think people are searching for stuff that they want. Like you said, the $35 T-shirt being more than the $8 T-shirt. It’s not the actual money of it that’s impressive to young people. Maybe it’s a better quality experience. People expect products to be experiences now.
AVC: That’s why people like vinyl. It’s tactile. It’s an experience.
AE: Exactly. It’s an experience. It’s something you make with hands and hold with hands. I think we do like physical stuff.
AVC: Do you get paid now to be a millennial consultant for companies?
AE: I’ve been asked, but I’ve never said yes to it. Isn’t that weird? For some reason, I feel like that would be such a weird thing for me to do.
AVC: Who asked you?
AE: A few ad agencies. I’ve done ad agency creative work. I wrote an advertisement for a campaign for last year’s Super Bowl. I’ve done stuff for ad agencies doing creative content, but I don’t think I’m equipped to talk about strategy. I can say, though, that having something that’s an experience of quality is really important, as “an artist,” in air quotes.
AVC: Do you think you’re a representative millennial?
AE: I think I am representative of millennials in that it’s very hard to cluster us together. We’re the most spread generation. If you put us on an x and y axis, we’d fall all over the map. We have averages, but just because we’re so widely spread. Except for being for gay marriage, there is not a lot that millennials are 100 percent on. Millennials are like the most active Republicans and the most active Democrats. There are a lot of racist millennials and a lot of progressive millennials. Also, it’s the most diverse generation just because people are sleeping with other people. We are the first generation that has one foot in the internet era, but also remembers when it took forever to use dial-up internet, or we didn’t have internet.
AVC: You were very young when that happened, to be fair.
AE: You mean to not have internet? I didn’t have internet until I was probably like 9, 10 years old. I would go to the library and use their internet computers, but I had AOL Instant Messenger and shit.
AVC: That’s what 9-year-olds did online at the time.
AE: That and Googling “boobs” all day.
AVC: At the library.
AE: I did that, too. I remember I saw my first slightly-NSFW stuff at the Brookline Public Library. Most of it got caught by the filters.
AVC: What’s the generation being born now called?
AE: Generation Z, or post-millennials, or Echo-boomers, which I’m not crazy about.
AVC: They’ll decide later.
AE: I think Generation Z should work. I call them Believers.
AVC: But they called you guys Generation Y for a while.
AE: We are Generation Y. There’s X, Y, and then who knows?
I prefer millennial, but I also prefer nothing. I find the whole term debatable. I went online and said millennial is a garbage word, or I wrote some article or said something about it in an interview, and I got a lot of tweets from people saying, “How dare you! We’re proud to be millennials!” I am too. I just don’t love the word.
AVC: That’s fine. It’s just a word.
AE: Sometimes I meet people after shows, and they say, “Millennials are an oppressed group!” I’m like, “Let’s not get crazy. We’re going to grow out of being young. You don’t grow out of being a woman.”