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One Good Thing: The trick uniting the internet’s funniest videos

How “the Vine cut” reflects our own mortality (yes, really).

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

Pay close attention to the very end of comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s annual “September 21” video this year, and you’ll catch an example of my favorite online editing technique. It’s one that never fails to make me laugh, one that seems to have only become more prominent in these pandemic-laden times.

The video’s last 70 seconds are taken up by Adejuyigbe, having celebrated the 21st of September (in honor of the first line of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s venerable hit “September”) by dancing around in a truck, shaking a tambourine, and playing a trombone, saying he’ll only continue this annual tradition in 2021 if viewers donate $50,000 to charity. (Donations comfortably exceeded that number in the first day of the video’s release.) And then, almost as an afterthought, Adejuyigbe says, “Also, please vote!” The word VOTE appears onscreen as an offscreen chorus of voices says “VO—” but the final T sound gets cut off, the word left unfinished.

I. Love. This. Style. Of. Edit. While it’s not native to the internet (you can find plenty of examples of movies and TV shows cutting away from the ends of words and sentences in the name of comedy, drama, or whatever this is), it’s something people who make videos on the internet have turned into a kind of poetry. As it’s used on the internet, I’d call this edit the Vine cut, after the late, lamented platform that made finding ways to tell great visual jokes in under six seconds an imperative. As such, a joke implied by a seemingly ill-timed cut to black could be even funnier than stating the joke outright. For example:

The famed “Back at it again at Krispy Kreme,” perhaps the best Vine ever recorded, is barely three seconds long, half the length of Vine’s six-second maximum. But it uses every moment of those three seconds to tell an entire story about a young man who, indeed, is just excited to be back at it again at Krispy Kreme, before he launches into a complicated tumbling pattern, his feet connecting with an overhanging neon sign. The video cuts away at the exact moment of impact. We know what comes next, but we don’t see it. The shock — both at the crash and at the sudden cut — drives our laughter.

The Krispy Kreme Vine dates to January 2014, and the Vine cut was already well in use on the platform before that point; nothing about it is new. On YouTube, in particular, the edit has been used to devastating comic effect in video essays, particularly from the channel H. Bomberguy, who loves to use this edit within his videos instead of just at the end. Take, for instance, an example from his video on flat Earth theorizing, in which he derives as much humor from cutting off the final consonant in “globe” as he does from his delivery. (The clip in question starts at 2:22 in the video, embedded below.)

And yet even if this technique is old hat at this point, I’ve seen an increased use of it during quarantine, as if the sudden, jarring edit replicates the instability of life right now. Comedian Kylie Brakeman, for instance, uses this kind of edit in nearly every video she posts on her Twitter feed, and it’s always great. (And if she’s not cutting off the last consonant in a word, she’s cutting away as quickly as she possibly can from that final consonant to achieve roughly the same effect, as in this video.)

The Vine cut is also extremely popular on TikTok, a platform that is very similar to Vine in the ways it forces users to make the most out of limitations and restrictions placed on their content. Take, for instance, this extremely good cat.

Or this little boy, who’s not as invincible as he would like:

Finally, there’s an entire subgenre of this kind of edit that just cuts off screams at the exact moment when they will be funniest. This type of video is so popular, there’s a whole subreddit devoted to it. But here’s my favorite from YouTube:

What accounts for the popularity of this type of cut? Platform limitations, certainly, and an inherent understanding that it’s part of the internet’s cinematic grammar. But I think that the more chaotic and hectic life becomes, the more this kind of abrupt cut just makes sense on some intrinsic level.

Having the last bit of a word get swallowed by the end of a video, or having a scream be interrupted by a black screen, or having somebody’s foot connect with a neon sign just before the whole video stops implies something in progress that is brutally halted in its tracks. Disaster might be averted — that Krispy Kreme sign never falls — but it’s always understood to arrive just after the camera stops recording. Even when we’re laughing at the sudden disruption, we have a sense that something is left unfinished, trapped in the void. This kind of cut is so funny to me because it reinforces how, on some level, we never know when everything is going to abruptly stop, when the timer restriction on our own lives will suddenly arrive.

No, I don’t think that every time we watch a funny video like these we consciously think about death. But there’s a reason I find the Vine cut so amusing, why I laugh when things just stop out of nowhere. We know where all of this is headed. And in 2020, we know it more acutely than ever.