A stand-up comedian took the stage at Scripps College’s Motley Coffeehouse last month and opened one of his bits by saying, “I’ve found that social media has been changing a lot these days; like Reddit, Twitter, they’re pretty cool, but Facebook is kind of dying, in my opinion.”
Most people reading this article might have first heard this stand-up comedian’s name from Facebook. Cade Niles PO ’20 is one of the most popular regular contributors to the “Meme Queens of the 5Cs” Facebook group, garnering hundreds of reactions and comments on the 68 posts he’s made since last August.
A year ago, Niles had nowhere near the presence that he now commands at the 5Cs’ cultural watering hole. That’s because he was over 1,500 miles away at Carleton College, which he attended for one year before transferring to Pomona College.
The story of how he wound up here and rose to fame is not just about Facebook. And it doesn’t start with his first meme. It begins, instead, with a shy 8-year-old with a penchant for comics showing a new side of himself in his first on-stage performance. And it stretches geographically like a rattling-off of accent impressions: New York, California, Minnesota, Scotland, and the grimy corners of the internet.
Niles grew up as a “timid” kid, he told me during a long conversation in a study room at Pomona’s Dialynas Hall last Thursday. Now he speaks in an earnest, booming voice — a voice he had inherited, he explained to me earlier, from a theater teacher who commanded that he speak “LOUDLY, SLOWLY, CLEARLY.”
Niles was born in Southern California, but soon after, his family moved to upstate New York for his father’s job at a boarding school there. Then, they returned to California to Danville before he started middle school.
In sixth grade, he dressed up as Wikipedia for Halloween, a website he’d become familiar with, as he began to use a computer for school assignments that made him also begin to feel anxious as a recent re-transplant to California.
He found himself overwhelmed with a new environment and the higher workload that comes with the transition into middle school.
“Coming from elementary school where so little was expected of me academically [and then] coming into sixth grade where I was doing problems sets and writing papers and essays and doing other homework assignments … It was kind of overwhelming,” Niles said. “I often found that comedy was a way for me to sort of unwind, a way for me to forget the stress I was feeling.”
By seventh grade, Niles had become a self-labeled class clown. He also began to pursue comedy and theater outside the classroom, at the encouragement of his parents. But it was during an abroad program at Gordonstoun, a boarding school in Scotland, that the role of entertainer truly locked onto his identity.
“While I was quiet and reserved for a few weeks at Gordonstoun,” a younger Niles wrote in a blog post while attending the program, “I slowly began to extrovert myself and make many new friends.”
Niles said Thursday that while he was 15 years old for the duration of the program, he felt as if he left as a 14-year-old and returned as a 16-year-old.
“I went from baby Cade to teenager Cade,” he said. “I also got my braces off.”
He continued with summer programs for sketch comedy and theater, including Cal Shakes, a Shakespeare camp in Southern California.
Niles, like perhaps some of the last students of our kind, did not grow up immersed in technology.
“I definitely wasn’t a child raised on the internet,” Niles told me. “I would say I was an adolescent who enjoyed the internet.”
Niles instead points to comics as an influential medium from his childhood — one that translates formally to the perfect meme template, he said, in that “it’s setup, setup, setup, delivery, in four panels.”
Around the same time he moved from New York City to Danville, Niles began to frequent some of the internet’s meme breeding grounds like Reddit and 4chan, the latter of which he describes as “the disgusting ooze whence much of internet humor comes,” that he is open, if a bit ashamed, to admit he visits.
Niles readily acknowledges that Reddit and 4chan’s meme culture is often criticized for blatant offensiveness and shock-humor that marches in step with systemic oppression. While he saw some of it to be funny at first as a middle-schooler, he’s come to see much of it as unnecessary and harmful, and points to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign as a turning point.
“I saw how a lot of the people engaging in that kind of purposefully offensive humor also held the beliefs that they were espousing supposedly ironically,” Niles said. “People who would make crude political jokes would also make crude political decisions.”
Niles has deleted several posts he’s made to Meme Queens — a joke about the “back” button on the Pomona web portal and the false missile alert in Hawaii, for example — either because people raised concerns in comments or private messages, or because they simply didn’t gain traction quickly. But he is sure-footed when defining his role and sense of humor as one that does no harm.
“I’m just trying to put some love in my comedy,” he told me, comparing his role to that of a court jester.
Then again, Niles can see meme posts as sometimes serving a grander purpose.
“I feel like I’m out there shaking a purple stick and making an ass out of myself sometimes, but sometimes engaging in satire, and in that way, maybe I’m engaging in some kind of social commentary,” he said.
The jester, after all, was considered the one person in the king’s court who could speak the truth.
But, “I’m certainly not the Joker,” he added. “I think he’s a terrorist.”
That weekend, I saw Niles at a birthday party for a mutual friend at Pitzer. It was held in the common room of a Mead Hall suite, which comes with some late-80s faux wood, blue-cushioned couches, and chairs. There was one new couch there, too — blue and just a bit bigger than a loveseat, pushed up against wall, on the left side of which Niles had posted himself by the time the party had peaked and begun to unwind.
A bit before midnight, he struck up a conversation with the person sitting to his right, Eli Fujita PZ ’19. Fujita, he remembered, is a member of Without a Box, the 5C improv group Niles had opened for the month before.
Fujita, Niles learned, also calls East Bay home, and they shared some mutual acquaintances who had attended The Athenian School and some of the local public high schools. A few minutes later, they discovered they attended the same Shakespeare camp, and therefore own identical shirts with each other’s name printed on them.
Niles told me he has a hard time not having a role in a community. In middle school, he was the class clown; in high school, the wisecracker. He took on the roles of Shakespeare characters, celebrity impressions, accents, and cartoons. At Carleton, secluded and cold, he was somebody but not a somebody. Now, in Claremont, he’s recognized by name and endowed with the very name of the community within which he drew attention to his own: the Meme Queen of the 5Cs.
In the time I spent with him, Niles would constantly pull out his phone — not to check texts or social media, but to reference what we were talking about in real life — scrolling quickly to specific memes he made but didn’t post, or inspirations from elsewhere. Now, on a couch on a Friday night in a dim common room, he used it to call up photographs of Cal Shakes, comparing them to Fujita’s archives.
Niles had arrived that night wearing the same green flannel shirt over a tee like in his Facebook picture, but by then, had lost the outer layer. As he sunk into the couch, he became a bit more literally invisible and didn’t seem to mind one bit.