Killing the Frog Part 2: Follow Me On Twitter
Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
E. B. White
Over six months ago, as often happens with surprising or shocking news, Twitter exploded en mass with awe, bewilderment, and of course, jokes. The grand event: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s death. Obviously this is not a new phenomenon, nor is one that is solely indicative to Twitter. For a while Kim Jong-Il was the world’s collective boogie man–part super-villain, part connoisseur, part rodeo clown–and his death was as surprising and shocking as his life was. Nothing inspires laughter greater than fear, surprise, or shock. Humor is, as we know, a way to console us through dark and surprising times.
I bring this is up because more than any social platform, Twitter has created a space in which everyone is a comedian. Sure, the Internet’s pervasive freedom, anonymity, and relative immunity, has fostered a grand comedy feedback system–a round-robin of people trying to one-up each other–but Twitter plucks all of those elements, combines them with a cynical and irony-starved generation raised on technology and Simpsons re-runs, and shortens the space so that we all get a turn to riff. So after Jong-Il’s death, people Tweeted the same types of jokes.
Funny? Sure. It’s all part of the ceaseless game of Twitter. The microblogging site has enabled people to react, in real time, to larger global events; to add commentary, and to exorcise their most basal comedy instincts for telling awful horrible jokes. What happened that day–what happens every day–were individuals deconstructing a larger global event, chipping away at it with jokes and retweets. On a local scale this occurs with hashtag games often led by Twitter comedy impresarios like Patton Oswalt, or sometimes springing up of the Twitterspehere’s collective volition. But more than anything, the Kim Jong-Il example demonstrates how actively buzzing and needy Twitter is, how Twitter has turned everyone likewise into a buzzing and needy personality: a comedian.
Because we are nothing more than tumors growing around iPhones, Twitter goes everywhere with us (and we go everywhere with it.) The urge to share that ridiculous thing your friend said at a bar or that pithy comment you have about arcane pop culture bullshit is damn near overwhelming. It’s too easy, it’s too fun, and best of all, it’s free.
While Twitter enables everybody to be a comedian, it has become a great boon for professional and semi-professional comedians, who can parlay their stream and followers into more gigs and exposure. And here’s where another feedback loop comes into play: the more gigs you get the more followers etc. The success of the Twitter format has even given rise to the Twitter Comedian which is different than a comedian on Twitter. The most visible example of this half-breed of comedy is chucklefucker™ and “Funniest Person of Twitter” Rob Delaney, whose comedy career was going soft until he discovered how to craft his demented one-liners for a larger tweet audience.
The success of the Twitter medium, or the perceived success (which to promoters, bookers, and simple-minded producers is the same thing as bona fide succe$$ with a dollar sign) has its drawbacks too. In Huffington Post’s Is Twitter Bad for Comedy debate comedian Christian Finnegan says that “[i]n addition to being funny and professional, any comedian who scores an on-camera gig should now also expect to serve as de facto publicist and unpaid marketing guru.” Twitter feeds are not just an outlet for comedians to exercise their craft and maintain an audience; their feeds serve as their PR outreach, no longer a special treat for devoted fans, but now a standard branding tool.
Of course this is true of anything or anybody that really wants to thrive in 2012, be it a business, a food truck, a school, a magazine, etc. But this is tied into the perceived necessity of social media, not its actual necessity. Not every ad campaign needs a social media branch, something that ad agencies and PR firms seem to miss in their desire to keep their clients relevant. So comedians, like many ad agencies, use social media—especially Twitter—as their main tool to build, sustain, and satisfy their audience. This works because the audience is already there so it’s just a matter of understanding the format and exploiting the new media’s grammar and language. (With Twitter this comes in the forms of creative tweets, retweets, hashtags, that allow for a surprising amount of information and irony in a short space).
Christian Finnegan also points out that “Twitter gives us a lazy formula with which to determine a comedian’s worth. More Followers=Better Comedian.” But someone who has different comedic abilities, ones that maybe aren’t as punchy and built for Twitter’s 140-character limit, might get passed over because they don’t meet some producers follower quota. Finnegan even gives an example of a friend who almost missed out on audition because he didn’t have enough followers.
What then does following really mean? Ostensibly this relationship is a show of support (or a way to keep tabs on your many tastes) but the ultimate effect is “plugging in.” A feed is like a cross between a reality show, stand-up special, and street preaching—but it is nevertheless entertaining because it is free, often unfiltered, presumptively interactive, and extremely ephemeral. There is always someone else to read. The value of followers (and following) is attached to the idea that Twitter is somehow more personal because of Twitter’s short and direct nature. At any moment your favorite comedian, writer, or musician could @ you. Also, comedians are people too. Twitter merges the public and private lives of everybody, especially public figures who might use the social media platform to interact with their friends and colleagues, nagging retweet-starved fans be damned.
This is certainly reminiscent of the MySpace effect, and sure Facebook, in the way those platforms allows artists to engage with their fans. And if you remove the number games, Twitter becomes an open forum for comedy, where everybody is seemingly on the same level. Additionally, because of the nature of joke telling and the shortness of the form, Twitter in a very particular way allows comedians incredible freedom the promote themselves through their craft. The upside to Finnegan’s complaint that comedians become their own PR people, is that they can promote themselves through jokes and content.
So is Twitter good or bad for comedy? At its best, it is just another medium for comedians to perform through, another market to invade. Most of the comedians who’ve taken to Twitter see it as a great exercise, a challenge to repeatedly craft 140-character one-liners, a 24/hour comedy workshop, or a repository for their b-sides. The best users of Twitter for comedy purposes also make podcasts, tour, push out album, basically staying active in both the physical and digital realms, allowing for a measured approach that lends them perspective. I’m thinking of people like Paul F. Tompkins, Louie CK, or Patton Oswalt, but it’s probably important to note that these are all of one particular generation of comedians—young enough to get technology, but old enough to know what the real world feels and sounds like.
Like many things on the Internet, the qualities that make Twitter artistically valuable, are the things that make it a hinderence for comedy. While it presents a democratic mix of professionals and amateurs constantly running their digital mouths, Twitter’s ceaseless stream of ideas and set-ups, jokes and barbs, becomes an addictive assault on the senses. As Jonas Polksy points out :
The biggest problem is that Twitter doesn’t stop. If you locked comedians and an audience inside a club, and they continued the show for infinity, no matter how talented the comics are, the show would quickly become terrible. The comics would exhaust their best jokes and then have to improv or quickly piece together new ones to continue the show.
Twitter’s eternal comedy show never ends, and each comedian’s set naturally expands to fill as much stagetime as possible.
Paradoxically, what makes Twitter so alive and fluid, is also what makes it stifling and ephemeral, to both the joke writer and the audience. Polksy’s point is that there’s no space, no breathing room, and no time to analyze and really soak things in. For me, as growing comedian, I need space. Comedy can be such a flighty and subjective thing, but I see the craft the same way I see poetry. Using language in an artful manner, a comedian has to arrange thoughts and premises that expound upon something deep and rich about his or her life, or about life in total. Comedy doesn’t have to be this big abstract beast that really makes people think as well as laugh man but it shouldn’t be something so easy that the Internet’s fortune cookie machine replaces the grime of getting out into the clubs, or working shitting jobs, or getting life experience. Comedy is work and Twitter comedians and Twitter’s influence on the modern comedy scene devalues that work by a large margin. It’s getting to the point where performers will just read their tweets on stage, and although Doug Benson makes a fun game out it, there’s nothing worse at an open mic night when a young comedian whips out his iPhone and rattles of a week’s worth of tweets of jokes. While Twitter feeds and podcasts offer unprecedented fluidity and freedom in creating and distributing content, they will never replace comedy LPs or DVD specials.
Twitter comedy really reminds me of another bullshit Internet trend: Instagram. Like Instagram photos, joke tweets and feeds were once just superfluous and slight content, but now that it has caught fire, it has become institutionalized and expected. I sure had a lot of fun with my Instagram photos when they didn’t mean jack shit, but now that EVERYFUCKINGBODY, even serious news outlets, use Instragram and Hispstamatic, it takes away the lightness and novelty of the form. Likewise, I sure had a lot of fun when random people would tweet funny ass shit or some comedian might live-tweet the State of the Union Address, but now that being funny on Twitter is expected, it takes away from the novelty and purity of what it once was.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely see the value Twitter has in the comedy world and I totally understand how it really boils joke-craft by its 140-character limit, how it has indeed created a new genre of comedy, a new language with which to play. The problem I have is that people give Twitter presence too much credence in determining the worth of comedy and that the comedians themselves put too much positive valence in something that doesn’t always yields the best content. Sure there might be some funny ass shit some comedian said, but for the most part the actual content of Twitter comedy is extremely limited and unfunny. Usually it has the nagging quality of someone trying way too hard, just like the oeuvre of funniest man of Twitter Rob Delaney.
Okay, I guess I just really don’t like Rob Delaney.
PS: Yeah, I know there’s one simple solution: if I don’t like Twitter comedy practitioners, I could unfollow them. But not so easy. For one, there’s the journalistic need to follow just because everyone does. Two–Twitter comedy is inescapable. It’s even on our news. Three—even as bad as they can be, the chucklefuckers on Twitter can still be entertaining. My problem really is the way Twitter has been over-valued.
PPS: You could say that’s true about Twitter or the Internet as a whole. Why focus on comedy? Because the form is so attractive to comedians. Twitter is a multi-faceted medium that not only lets people tell jokes but sell themselves at the same time. And people buy into it.