Actor chuck norris turns 80: one man, one meme

It’s US actor and martial artist Chuck Norris’ birthday. Why does a man who doesn’t matter so much have his own joke genre?

California 1978: Chuck Norris in his garden Photo: Nik Wheeler/Corbis/Getty Images

For those who are not yet familiar with the "Chuck Norris joke" principle – it’s pretty simple. You simply turn the real circumstances around and assume that they apply the other way around in the case of Chuck Norris. The Chuck Norris joke is probably one of the oldest Internet memes still alive. And the man it revolves around is also still alive, to be more precise, he turns 80 today: Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris doesn’t do push-ups, he pushes the earth down. Chuck Norris doesn’t get wet, the water becomes Chuck Norris. Bears wish they had Norris powers. And so on. If you want, you can add a reference to the roundhouse kick.

Chuck Norris isn’t really that significant; if it weren’t for the jokes about him, he’d hardly be called a celebrity. Martial artist, right-wing evangelical and second-rate actor from third-rate TV series: not exactly a guy you’d expect to make history. But maybe that’s exactly why Chuck Norris jokes work.

Chuck Norris, real name Carlos Ray Norris, rose to fame in the early 1970s with a supporting role in a Bruce Lee movie. This was followed by two decades of appearances in action films and finally the lead role in the U.S. television series "Walker, Texas Ranger." In the meantime it has become quieter around him, now and then he has a cameo appearance on television or makes himself heard by saying that he thinks Viktor Orban is a nice guy.

Wit as a mental exercise

The Chuck Norris joke, in turn, emerges at the beginning of the 2000s, with the advent of social media (then still called "Web 2.0"). Why invincibility jokes are made about him, of all people, is as difficult to reconstruct today as the origin of most other memes.

For some reason, the figure of Chuck Norris is intrinsically iconic enough to function as a cultural glue for a joke that can be changed and adapted almost infinitely. Probably the superhuman logic of the jokes works precisely because the real Chuck Norris is pretty much irrelevant.

Anyway, Chuck Norris jokes aren’t about Chuck Norris. In fact, they’re not even jokes. Rather, they’re brainteasers. Like most memes, they invite the reader to understand the basic principle and make it their own in the form of new jokes. Chuck Norris jokes, when they’re good, are topical or capture the zeitgeist. That’s why you have to keep coming up with new Chuck Norris jokes.

Except, of course, Chuck Norris, who has already heard all the Chuck Norris jokes.

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