The best and biggest memes of 2016

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portraits of 2016 memes

Illustration by Bruno Moraes

It’s been a wild ride.

Memes

They are the elixir of life. How could we have survived the unprecedented horror of 2016 without them? Answer: We could not have.

But meme culture moves so fast that we’re often onto the next trend before the current one really sinks in. So allow us to take a quick breather here and relive some of the strongest contenders (so far) for Meme of the Year.

Exploding Kid

Exploding Kid, a teenager named Michael McGee with a talent for making veins pop out of his forehead, caught fire early this year and became a convenient shorthand for every possible frustration in the months to come—and there were many. For sheer universality, this meme was golden. —Miles Klee

Damn, Daniel

Presumably the first example of a meme whose unlikely but massive mainstream popularity led to a SWAT raid on the originator’s home, “Damn, Daniel” proved that a catchphrase can still carry you far. A celebration of friendship, lowkey fashion, and general positivity, it was also many viewers’ introduction to the ephemeral magic of Snapchat. —M.K.

Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer

While the eventual GOP nominee for president has proved to be a walking, talking meme in his own right, the best meme of the Republican primaries was, hands down, the conspiracy theory that Sen. Ted Cruz is the infamous Zodiac Killer, who committed several unsolved murders in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The joke proved so popular that a real polling firm ended up asking voters whether they found it plausible, and Google had to suppress it in their search results. The truth is out there. —M.K.

Bernie vs. Hillary on the issues

Meanwhile, on the Democrats’ side, Bernie-voting progressives were committed to keeping the focus on real issues. Sort of. —M.K.

Crying Jordan

This here is a very unusual case of meme longevity. The famous picture of weepy basketball legend Michael Jordan that now gets Photoshopped onto anyone who has suffered some great defeat or roasting—whether sports-related or not—was taken way back in 2009, at his induction into the NBA Hall of Fame. Its second life as a meme began a couple of years ago. But 2016 has proved, time and again, to be the zenith of Crying Jordan. It was this year that both the original photographer and Jordan himself had to acknowledge the meme, and with mythical upsets at all levels of basketball—from the crushing NCAA championship loss suffered Jordan’s alma mater to the Cleveland Caveliers’ comeback against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals (which gave us Crying LeBron), Crying Jordan was everywhere. Even at the Super Bowl. —M.K.

Dat Boi

Dat Boi, a turn-of-the-millennium computer animation of a frog riding a unicycle, died almost before he ever lived, which was basically the Daily Dot’s fault, not that we’re sorry about it. Because we were quickly supersaturated with his image (and the attendant cry “O shit waddup!”), he currently serves, when remixed into other memes, as a sort of commentary on the transience of internet jokes, and how easily they’re commodified.  M.K.  

Spicy Boys

There’s some serious dispute about who first had the idea to officially rename fire ants “spicy boys”—at least two rival petitions on that front have surfaced—but we can all agree, at the very least, that it’s a brilliant idea, and it ought to be be wholeheartedly embraced? Why must we fight about where it came from? Why must we use it to troll Hillary Clinton? That’s not what the spicy boys movement is all about. It’s just common-sense reform.  —M.K.

SpongeGar

Because there’s only so much the Mr. Krabs blur meme can do, we needed to borrow another SpongeBob SquarePants character for relatable content. —M.K.

Haters gonna say it’s fake

In 2016, you can’t do anything on the internet without some asshole saying it’s fake. So you may as well fake this stuff to begin with. —M.K.

‘Hey, authority’

Kid Rock tried to be a badass and take down the Man with his brazenly anti-authority bird-flipping. It didn’t exactly work. —M.K.

Fake concert events on Facebook

The beauty of a really well-tailored fake concert page on Facebook is its plausibility. Wouldn’t Lil Wayne play a show at Rite Aid? Shouldn’t we get to see Sugar Ray live at Ross Dress for Less? Mark my words: One of these days, one of these concerts is going to happen for real. M.K.

via Facebook

Butt equations

If you’ve run up against an absurd or calculus-like moral hypothetical that seems to pit the chance of unforgettable sexual adventure against a world of negative consequences, it’s definitely part of this meme, which has evolved so far from its origin point as to be a language unto itself. But the long and short of it is: Would you fuck a watermelon? —M.K.

Sad Ben Affleck

The internet loves Sad Ben Affleck, and we got it in spades with the horrendous reviews of the incoherent superhero slog Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The dude went completely, irrevocably numb—and we all had a flash of pity. He is now to movies what Crying Jordan is to sports. —M.K.

Don’t talk to me or my son ever again

For some reason, calling a miniature version of something its “son” is hilarious. And for some other reason, there’s an inexhaustible supply—both real and theoretical—of these Senior-and-Junior pairings out there in the world. The result is arguably the most sophisticated take on a “fuck off” attitude that the world can hope for. —M.K.

Harambe

Who could have possibly guessed, when a Cincinnati Zoo gorilla was preemptively killed because a child had fallen into his enclosure, that memes would rise from the national outrage that followed? Harambe jokes have taken myriad forms, from parody song lyrics, to mock-heartfelt tributes, to the “dicks out for Harambe” movement, but always at the core is the idea that we, as a nation, refuse to let this grotesque incident fade away. The more we invoke “the dead ape,” the funnier it gets. —M.K.

Yet for all the Harambe chatter these past few weeks, it was the genius who showed up to the the RNC with a “Bush did Harambe” poster—piggybacking on the occasionally-serious-and-often-ironic refrain “Bush did 9/11″—that forever solidified the noble silverback’s place in internet canon. Welcome to immortality, Harambe. You’ve earned it. —M.K.

Get You a Man Who Can Do Both 

Drake: the softest rapper in the game but also the hardest. A man’s man, but also a ladies’ man. He looks just as natural dressing up as dressing down. Drake is “a man who can do both,” and in early 2016, he touched off a meme about what masculinity should look like now. 

Sometimes, people mocked the impossible standard—by showing corny white celebrities trying to “do both”—and sometimes they celebrated one of the few men who can pull it off. This was a meme that could do both, and its versatility helped it stay strong throughout the year. –Jay Hathaway

Kermit vs. Evil Kermit 

Kermit the frog has been a staple of meme culture for a couple of years now, thanks to his tea-sipping appearance in the “but that’s none of my business” meme. But in November, Evil Kermit reinvented him as the devil on your shoulder, the feeder of your worst impulses. You’re Kermit, with your bad ideas, and you’re also Evil Kermit, telling yourself to go through with them. 

A late contender for most important frog-related meme of the year. But as we’ll see shortly, it’s only a runner-up. —J.H.

Graham the Car Crash Body

“Graham” was a physical model of a human body designed entirely to weather a car crash. Apparently, it takes a very thick skull and a whole lot of nipples. He was meant as a public service announcement: Our average human frames can’t hold up to that kind of force, no matter how we try to brace ourselves. 

What he became, though, was something entire different. Some saw him as a horror, others wanted to have sex with him and call him daddy. Maybe they were joking, but also maybe not? 

Graham reached his meme apex when he intersected with another meme, “this is the ideal male body.” It wasn’t about him, but clearly he was made for it. —J.H.

Arthur’s Fist 

So many emotions in one fist. Arthur, the preteen cartoon aardvark you know from childhood, became the avatar of all our restrained anger this year, whether petty as hell or totally justified. 

On Twitter, people used Arthur’s fist while relating situations where they wanted to snap but didn’t, stopping with a balled-up fist and an angry tweet instead. —J.H.

Trump Pepe 

Time made Donald Trump the Person of the Year because of his outsized influence on global culture, toxic though it may have been. If they’d picked a meme of the year using the same criteria, it would have to be Donald Trump as Pepe the Frog. 

The war for the soul of Pepe raged in the media this year as he became a mascot for “alt-right” white supremacists and the segment of Trump supporters who self-identify as “deplorables.” Even Hillary Clinton’s campaign had to acknowledge him in their guide to the alt-right. 

On the opposite side was Pepe’s creator, Matt Furie, who never intended him to be such a character and tried (mostly without success) to take him back from the neo-Nazis.

Miles Klee argued on the Daily Dot and on WNYC that Pepe wasn’t inherently racist and that he could still be used the way he was before, as a kind of everyman character. But even though the election is over, that hasn’t happened. The new, Trumpian Pepe seems here to stay. 

Feels bad, man. —J.H.

Name a More Iconic Duo

“Name a more iconic duo,” a woman challenged her followers back in September, with a picture of models/Kardashians Kylie and Kendall Jenner. “I’ll wait.”

She waited about 30 seconds before she was buried in a flood of more iconic duos. Because, if we’re being real here, there are many. And the “duo” format is wide open for both genuine and ironic responses. Any two things will do.

The original poster of the meme later said she wasn’t being sincere in her lionization of the Jenner sisters, but it was too late. Everyone had taken her seriously, and she had to lock her account due to all the negative attention. It was all worth it, though, for this fantastic contribution to internet culture. —J.H.

Confused Mr. Krabs 

Confused Mr. Krabs is perhaps the most relatable meme of the year. Taken out of context from a Spongebob Squarepants episode, this image of Krabs captures a range of feelings from confused to disoriented to “oh shit, the beat just dropped.” 

You can use it to react to any sudden surprise— from your parents yelling at you when you’re barely awake to a reality television personality winning the  U.S. presidency. 

If you’re asking yourself, “What the hell is going on?”, Confused Mr. Krabs is your dude. —J.H.

“Tea Lizard”

Putting “Tea Lizard” on this list is a bit of cheat to get two memes in one. The original meme of Kermit the Frog sipping tea is years old but still very popular. Frog tea is internet shorthand for “but that’s none of my business,” and it’s a snarky way of telling someone they’re dead wrong. 

It was revived this summer by a Good Morning America tweet that referred to Kermit as “tea lizard,” seemingly out of ignorance. People couldn’t believe how dumb it was. The thing is, the social media at GMA were on another level with Tea Lizard, and it went over many people’s heads at the time.

If you followed Weird Twitter master @trillballins, you were in on the joke: He invented the #tealizard as a troll, along with referring to a picture someone in a bad The Mask costume as “Smockin.” The GMA tweet was a shoutout that gave Trillballins the respect he deserves. —J.H.

Dropping Hints That I’m Single

Back before her relationship with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, subtle hint-dropper, dropped a hint that she was single. She said, on her popular TV show, “I’m single.”

A screengrab of the moment became a meme in 2016 because of its perfect irony and its utter usefulness as a template. You can use it to drop unsubtle “hints” about anything. That you’re single, that you’re desperately in need of attention, that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism …

You can even drop hints that you’re dropping hints.

I’m like dropping hints that this is a good meme.

This is a good meme. —J.H.

J. Cole Went Platinum With No Features

One of the best memes to come out of Black Twitter this year was a really good joke about rapper J. Cole and his army of online stans. Cole is an excellent rapper, but his fans are convinced his material is somehow too deep for the mainstream to grasp. They’re constantly raving about how Cole’s 2014 album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, went platinum without a verse from any other artist.

“J. Cole went platinum with no features!” they’ll tell you, at the slightest provocation, or sometimes with no provocation at all. That makes the phrase a perfect punchline even in—or especially in?—non hip-hop contexts. Use it as the caption for literally any unwanted conversation, and you’ve got yourself a winning joke. —J.H.

This Meme Is From the Future

We don’t yet understand the meme from the future—which consists of a yellow-tinted old man and his multicolored trio of clones—but one day we will. This nonsensical meme is said to have been sent back in time from the year 42069 (lol) to enlighten us all. So far, it’s just inspired many remixes and variations. No one knows whether future-people will consider this meme good, but in 2016, it was excellent. —J.H.

Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance. 

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