The lifespan of an internet meme is a precarious thing.
Some go viral within a tiny community and become an in-joke. Others flare up, burn brightly, then quickly fade away again. Some get revived months later.
And some, like the very excellent steamed hams meme from The Simpsons, simply go from strength to strength.
If for some awful reason you’ve never seen the steamed hams scene which is the meme’s ultimate origin, here’s an important reminder before we progress any further:
That scene is from Season 7, Episode 21 of The Simpsons, titled “22 Short Films About Springfield”. It first aired in 1996. The scene involves Superintendent Chalmers visiting Principal Skinner for a “luncheon” at his home, only for Skinner to burn the food by accident and resort to an increasingly ridiculous web of lies to try and cover his tracks.
It’s a classic Simpsons scene in a lot of ways, but it’s also got something a lot of other classic scenes don’t: massive viral fame.
Here’s what happens if you type “steamed hams” into YouTube, for instance:
So much steamed ham.
That’s just a small snapshot of the many, many edits, parodies and variations of the scene that have been published over the past year or so.
If you filter the “steamed hams” videos by views, the top hit isn’t even the original clip — it’s a Guitar Hero-inspired parody with over 1.2 million views and 38,000 likes.
The top comment on that video sums the whole trend up pretty well: “Oh good, another thing I never would have imagined, yet needed so badly.”
The birth of the “steamed hams” meme.
As with many widespread and super popular memes, the exact origin can sometimes be tricky to pinpoint. In terms of YouTube videos, Know Your Meme cites this short animation — which was uploaded in 2010 and made using a now-defunct text-to-movie maker called Xtranormal — as one of the earliest examples:
In terms of the meme’s massive popularity, though, it seems to have started an in-joke among the Simpsons fanbase that simply snowballed over time.
“It’s been in the consciousness of Simpsons fans since the joke aired,” 22-year-old graduate Chris Kanski, one of the original admins of the very popular Simpsons Shitposting Facebook group, told Mashable.
“It’s an almost perfect Simpsons sketch, I’d say it’s one of the best sketches The Simpsons have made.”
Simpsons Shitposting started back in early 2015. At the time of writing, it has well over 200,000 members and hundreds of new posts every day. In the early days, Kanski says the group was mainly flooded with out-of-context quotes and frames from the show. Simple posts with minimal thought put into them, the more absurd the better.
Needless to say, steamed hams was a big feature.
Here’s an image Kanski shared in the group back in July 2015, which sparked over a thousand comments and resulted in an annual group event being made to honour the thread.
The steamed hams meme seems to have thrived in the group’s culture of “shitposting”.
“Shitposting now is not at all what it used to be,” Kanski explained. “And that is not in a bad sense, because now shitposting involves a lot of talent and creativity, and actually making good jokes. But back in the day, and this was in like early 2015, whenever the group was first created, all that shitposting meant was just posting whatever the fuck you wanted from The Simpsons. There wasn’t any desire to make a joke or to be funny, and that was kind of the whole point: just kind of like, not trying. If you imagine humour as requiring a thought process, the whole point of shitposting was not having a thought process behind it. And that really was taken to its extreme.”
Over time, though, as the group got more and more members, the type of humour changed. Spontaneous, out-of-context posts were no longer the norm.
“It’s just amazing what people have done with it”
“What replaced it was genuinely good, thought out humour,” said Kanski. “And genuinely good, thought-out humour in this day and age of the internet means absurdism, right? And just taking something way too far. Not in the sense of edginess, but just in the sense of pushing a joke to its limits — and that’s what steamed hams is.”
In a sense, the steamed hams meme has evolved with the internet. It’s still a part of the “shitposting” culture, but now — with video editing software getting more and more sophisticated and widely available — that culture has changed. The meme has moved from simple, out-of-context jokes to impressively-edited video parodies.
“That’s why it’s so good,” said Kanski. “It’s so versatile. If you’re going to take a joke to its limits, you take the fucking steamed hams conversation — it’s just so hilarious.
“That’s the first step, right, you’ve got steamed hams as an iconic phrase — it’s memorable, everyone knows exactly what it’s a reference to. The whole sketch, it’s just chockfull of opportunities to just completely stretch it out to breaking point. And even go further than breaking point.
“Honestly, I just go on YouTube sometimes and look through steamed hams videos, and it’s just amazing what people have done with it.”
The rise of “steamed hams” edits on YouTube.
Steamed hams is arguably bigger now than it’s ever been. A quick search on YouTube is enough to show just how popular, and impressively imaginative, the meme has become.
Here’s just a small selection of the many, many hundreds of variations of the scene (most of which have several hundred thousand views)…
“Steamed hams but it’s a piano dub.”
“Steamed hams but Skinner is honest about everything”.
“Steamed hams but it’s from Chalmers’ perspective.”
“Steamed hams but every time Skinner lies he descends 7% more into the netherworld”.
“Steamed hams translated into Chinese and then back in to English on Google Translate”.
“Steamed hams but every word is replaced with its first occurrence”.
“Steamed hams 10 times, sync point when Chalmers says ‘Aurora Borealis'”.
“Steamed hams but it’s All Star”.
Now, in 2018, the meme shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.
On January 5, Simpsons writer Joe Blevins shared a draft version of the scene’s script on Twitter.
Most recently, on 7 March a mashup between the steamed hams scene and the Gorillaz track “Feel Good Inc.” made it to the top of Reddit’s r/videos subreddit. It has almost 30,000 upvotes, and the video hit the top 10 on YouTube’s Trending feed.
You’ve got to hand it to the YouTubers behind these clips — that’s an impressive amount of effort to spend on something so beautifully, beautifully ridiculous.
Hopefully this meme will continue for many years to come.