The word “Surreal” first saw use in the early 1920’s because of the rise in absurdist humour around the start of the 1900’s.
Early examples including Franz Kafka, the stream of consciousness writings of James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson, or the poetry of Dylan Thomas and E. E. Cummings.
1907 -James Joyce produces short poems called Chamber Music, joking about the sound of urine hitting a chamber pot.
1912 – Franz Kafka writes “Die Verwandlung” (The Metamorphosis), a comedy about a salesman who turns into a giant “Vermin” or insect. He reflects on how hard life is as a travelling salesman, despite the fact he has become a large insect. Reflecting upon human built priority structure verses actual needs and current circumstances. Short vs. Long term vision.
1917 – Marcel Duchamp places a urinal in an art gallery, signed under a pseudonym “R. Mutt”. He does this to force critics, gallery goers and artist to ask what qualifies as art, as well as to poke fun at the aura of “respect” around the High Art community.
Post World War 1 – Dadaism rises, a relative of Surrealism, although Absurdist/Surreal humour tends not to be quite as random as Dada. Examples of those who walk that line include Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono.
1952 – John Cage 4’33, a three-part orchestral piece that contains no notes, yet has a runtime of four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
1953 – Waiting for Godot, a parody dramatic play about characters waiting for another character named Godot, who represents God. It makes fun of the questions that the religious ask in regards to their god(s)
1966 – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a take upon the characters from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, which sees the events from their perspective.
1969-74 – Monty Python’s Flying Circus sees the rise of Black Comedy which deals with taboo or serious subjects, not usually joked about, but done so in a ridiculous way so as to demonstrate that it’s a joke and to offend slightly less.
1982 – The Young Ones, absurdist TV series. Both this and MPFC make heavy use of non-sequiturs.
1990’s – British Television is rampant with surreal comedies, both new and old.
The Internet in the 2000’s – With the rise of Youtube and web comics, surreal humour has become very mainstream, and is accessible to anyone in the western world.
2017 – Popular absurdist Youtuber Felix Kjellberg comes under fire for using absurdist humour to demonstrate the ridiculous possibilities of some internet based companies. UOW student Hugh Vaughan-Floyd launches his parody Instagram account Pictures_of_Leaves, which is an ongoing project which aims to point out how easy it is the garner a following on Social Media by posting fairly uninteresting, generic photos using a series of tropes (Hashtags and puns).
Drs. Mary K. Rodgers and Diana Pien analysed the subject in an essay entitled “Elephants and Marshmallows”, and wrote that “jokes are nonsensical when they fail to completely resolve incongruities,” and cited one of the many permutations of the elephant joke: “Why did the elephant sit on the marshmallow?” “Because he didn’t want to fall into the cup of hot chocolate.”*
*Chapman, Antony J.; Foot, Hugh C., eds. (1977). It’s A Funny Thing, Humor. Pergamon Press. pp. 37–40