Short and Funny, Part 1: Conversations with Twitter’s Top Comedy Writers
It wasn’t that long ago, you’ll recall, that Twitter was derided as an exercise in vanity for famous people to feed their comically-obsessed fans a glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle, no matter how mundane the details. (“No way. Kelly Ripa likes pear slices in her salad? So do I!”)
But in the last two years or so, the comedy industry’s opinion of Twitter did a complete 180. There’s been a wave of comedians, writers, performers and producers joining the early adopters and utilizing Twitter as a platform to tell 140-character jokes and reach new fans.
It’s easy to see why. Twitter is in a way a virtual writer’s room where, at your leisure, you can have an immediate audience with comedy legends, professionals and the occasional undiscovered talent as they deliver jokes, witty observations and other miscellany. And it’s free. You won’t have much luck asking Lebron James to come over and entertain you with some free basketball, but on any given day you can observe the next comedy superstar test out a joke on Twitter before making it part of his act. It is an incredibly unique entertainment experience.
I recently reached out to a number of comedians, writers, performers and producers to get their take on Twitter and its implications for comedy professionals and consumers. They represent a broad spectrum of comedy folks on Twitter, with numbers of followers ranging from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands. They’re all quite funny, and all adhere to Rob Delaney’s motto for what makes a tweet funny: “Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat.”
Up first: the writers.
Alec Sulkin, @thesulk. Family Guy writer and producer.
Sample tweet: The first piss after sex is like the high school football team bursting through the paper banner.
Alex Baze, @bazecraze. Saturday Night Live Weekend Update Head Writer.
Sample tweet: When a woman says “you’re cute,” what I hear is “when I picture you naked, there’s no penis.”
Kelly Oxford, @kellyoxford. Writer, blogger, stay-at-home mom. Sold a pilot to a network.
Sample tweet: The world won’t change until there is a tampon commercial that uses red fluid instead of blue fluid to demonstrate absorbency.
Kurt Metzger is a darn funny NY-based stand-up, writer and actor. He was on Last Comic Standing and just was featured on Comedy Central’s Hot List. Kurt doesn’t use Twitter. We asked him about it.
How long have you been doing stand-up?
11 to 12 glorious years!
A lot of comedians find Twitter to be a useful tool to reach new fans. You abstain. Any particular reason why?
I am dead to Twitter until one million dollars is raised to help the various dusky peoples of the world with their AIDS and diarrhea and what-not. Actually, I’m lazy and I don’t feel like starting a new thing. Just Facebook me.
Do have any plans to join Twitter in the future?
At some point I’ll get a computer-nerd friend or girl I’m fucking to set it up for me. I mean, my current girlfriend set up my twitter account, but not so I could sync it up with my Facebook. So either she will do it eventually or I’ll have to wait until we break up. My friend John could probably do it, but I think I owe him like 400 bucks so it’s awkward right now.
You’re a talented joke-writer, so one could assume writing 140-character jokes would be easy for you. Is there something about giving away your ideas for free that you’re uncomfortable with?
What? I’d be giving them away for free? They’d still belong to me I thought. Entertainment law is so complex!
Do other comedians ever ask you why you don’t use twitter? Are there comedians or other industry people who tell you not to use twitter?
Seriously I’m not anti-Twitter. I just don’t give a shit is all. No one put this idea in my head. The other thing I forgot to mention is that I’ve never read an interesting twitter, except for when Boner Stabone went missing.
When did you first start using Twitter, and what got you interested?
Kelly Oxford: I avoided Twitter at first because I was into Facebook and just divorcing MySpace. It felt like too much online social stuff was happening at once, but then my friend Steve Agee encouraged me to take a look at it. I saw that Twitter was like the electronic back pages of Teen Beat, with celebrities available for people to interact with. I thought it could get interesting since very little PR was involved. But once I saw how boring they were, I was over it and onto finding really funny writers. I started tweeting in March of 2009.
Alec Sulkin: I think I first started using twitter in the summer of ’09. I was a little late, but I was instantly fascinated. It felt like a natural extension of Facebook.
Alex Baze: I started my account about a year and a half ago. Up till then, I’d had no interest in Twitter. All I’d heard about it was that you had 140 characters to say something and that was it. It didn’t sound like much of anything to me then. But I worked for Jimmy Fallon, writing monologue jokes, over the summer and I noticed that he spent a lot of time and energy talking and joking about Twitter and other online phenomena, so I thought I’d better join up and at least see what it was. I was hooked immediately.
Rob Kutner: I was first turned onto Twitter about 2 years ago by the great comedy media maven @chrisbrowne, who suggested it as a way to publicize my new book, Apocalypse How: Turn the End Times into the Best of Times.
Twitter seems to provide an opportunity for the behind-the-scenes folks, or even people who aren’t part of the comedy industry (a housewife in Canada, for example) to gain some notoriety. Do you like that aspect? Are you comfortable with it? Could you care less?
Alec Sulkin: One of the reasons I’m on Twitter is to achieve total comedic victory over my peer group. That’s all I care about. #kiddingsortof I was definitely helped by some “celebrity” friends along the way. A few key #FFs and RTs at the right time have also helped. I think it’s a great medium because it’s so short. That’s great for me because I’m lazy. I’m writing short responses here because I’m hunched over my keyboard, wearily rolling my eyes at each question and regretting the choice to write even this sentence because of the extra typing.
Kelly Oxford: I love knowing that people can relate to the things I think and say. Look, I’m a 33-year-old housewife with 3 kids in Canada, I’m pretty alienated for a mobile white woman in North America. I don’t get out and talk to adults every day, and when I do it’s mostly grocery store workers. I totally care that my thoughts can appeal to (and also offend) a broad spectrum of people, not only parents.
Alex Baze: I love that aspect! It is a very level playing field. 140 characters. You can’t even change the font. All you have is your wit. If a Canadian housewife’s tweet is funnier than a professional comedian’s, she gets more stars and retweets. It’s frontier justice. You can become “famous,” even if you don’t have the jawline to be on TV.
Rob Kutner: I like the democratic aspect, in theory. As long as they aren’t gunning for my job.
The thrill of viewing live comedy notwithstanding, is there a case that can be made for twitter serving as a comedy substitute from the traditional forms we’re used to? Do you ever think, yeah, I could watch this sitcom, but I think I’d rather read some funny tweets?
Rob Kutner: Well, there’s the lesser time commitment, which for Twitter is something like “zero seconds.” There’s the “quick hit” of funny you can get from it — with sitcoms, there are but a few really reliable ones. I also find reading a page of Twitter feeds, comedic and not, to be a way of quickly dipping into what the world’s talking about. At the very least, it’s a way to keep tabs on how close the Bieberites are to boarding the Mothership and returning to their home planet.
Kelly Oxford: I’m convinced that I follow the funniest people on Twitter and I go to my phone/ipad/laptop for a ‘pick me up’ more than I turn on the TV, yes.
Alex Baze: A substitute, no. I think we are a story culture, and we pull satisfaction from watching a story start, take all kinds of turns and then wraps up. You don’t get that with Twitter. You just get a series of interesting and not-so-interesting thoughts, with a variety of worldviews and opinions that never coheres enough to become an alternative to a story. The great thing about Twitter is that it’s as long or as short as you want it to be at any given time. I can pop on and just see what Rob Delaney said today, or I can sit and scroll for a while, but there’s never a time when I look up from Twitter and notice that an hour has gone by. Tiny portions.
Do you feel that twitter provides a creative outlet for you that isn’t available with your other work? With scripted television, you have a network and censors to deal with. Are the jokes you post on twitter your comic sensibilities in their most pure form, so to speak?
Alec Sulkin: Yes. I mean, Family Guy provides a huge outlet for comedy, and we say everything in the writers room. We may not be able to use it, but we say it. All of those guys would be hilarious on Twitter, but I think some of them hear Twitter and think it’s like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus or something. @studiocitycat is Danny Smith, who is a first ballot Family Guy Hall of Fame writer.
Rob Kutner: Twitter is like this big landfill where you can basically dump anything that pops into your head, without regard to format, audience, sensitivity, or urgency — the Outback Steakhouse of 140-character social messaging boards. And on my neurotic comedy writer’s end, it’s the quickest way to get a dose of validation. It’s like the button on the morphine drip, only way more likely to lead to kidney failure.
Assuming a comedian or writer is on twitter to write jokes and not just promote themselves, do you think less less of him or her if their tweets are not funny? How good of a measuring stick is twitter of what and who is funny?
Alex Baze: It’s only okay as a measuring stick, because everyone uses it differently. I tend to throw out anything I think has some merit, to see what the feedback is. I know other people who won’t post anything unless they’re sure it’s stellar. They’re afraid of putting a dud out there and lowering their esteem. Others, I’m sure, only post things they’re not sure about, to get some feedback. I don’t really judge anyone’s funniness based on Twitter, because it’s more of a workshop in my mind. We’re just building stuff. This isn’t the show. Though I’m sure there are others who have decided I’m not funny based on a couple of tweets. God speed to those dirtbags.
Kelly Oxford: There are so many different types of funny on twitter. Like, 100,000 types of funny. If by measuring stick you mean the # of followers they have? I’d say no, it’s a terrible measuring stick.
Alec Sulkin: It’s a great measuring stick. You have this short amount of space and time to make people laugh.
Rob Kutner: Twitter seems as fair as anything else — you have as much time as you need to craft the joke, and even the most discursive, non “jokey” comics ought to be able to squeeze some wit into a line now and then. However, I still maintain that the only true test of funniness is phrenology.
On tweeting and the similarities/differences writing for television, film:
Kelly Oxford: Twitter has been a great lesson in shortening a thought to its bare bones yet keeping the message in tact. That’s a skill I’m constantly trying to fine tune — in writing, in life.
Alex Baze: I have found that I enjoy writing more about social mores and quirks on Twitter. It feels like a very intimate setting, since you can choose your friends, so it almost feels weird to talk to them in a presentational way about current events. That said, there are many times when I have a joke that we can’t use on SNL for one reason or another, so I’ll put in on Twitter, just to see how people feel about it. I would say I don’t really have a process for tweeting. I don’t really sit down and “try to think of” a good tweet. I just open Twitter when something I think is funny or true enough that I want to share it and see who agrees.
Rob Kutner: Generally, Conan doesn’t like to get too political or pedantic. And I used to be a Daily Show writer, so I still occasionally get those blood-pressure spikes from the news that have to be vented out through irony. So Twitter works well as that vent. But it’s also a nice way to just float those boats that are too weird or crazy or based on my personal peccadilloes to likely appeal to Conan. For example, my constant calls for race war against Irish redheads from Brookline.
Alec Sulkin: Yeah, I try to choose one or the other, but sometimes I’ll pitch something for the show that I’ve tweeted. I’ll definitely tweet something that I’ve pitched in the room if it doesn’t get in the show and if I think it’s funny. Seth has been a big supporter of my twitter feed from early on. That has helped me a great deal.
Is there competition among your tv colleagues, stand-up friends in regards to tweets? Do you ever feel pressure to get something funny out there, even if you’re not feeling it?
Alex Baze: There is some of that. I’ve had a few chats with other writers about who’s got more followers and whether or not they have more than me because they also do standup, etc. I think it’s just an extension of the competition that already exists between any two people who think they’re funny. Twitter doesn’t create it, but it does have some handy score-keeping devices in place.
As for pressure, I do feel a little. Like I said, I don’t generally sit down to write a tweet, but I do notice if it’s been a while since something landed nicely and I’ll sweat it a little until I have another winner. Luckily, Twitter doesn’t go anywhere and no one really misses you too much if you’re not on board for a little while. It’s like a pet audience that you don’t have to feed because everybody else is always feeding it.
Rob Kutner: Gentle competition, at most — like two elderly panda bears slam-dancing. I do feel the pressure, having set up shop on Twitter St, to occasionally offer something up. But it used to be more intense and daily, and now it’s more like “when I have it in stock.”
Alec Sulkin: If by competition, you mean reveling in the failure of others then, yes. I would call Twitter competitive. Honestly, it’s more about patting ourselves and each other on the back.
Kelly Oxford: No, but they definitely inspire me to stay creative.
Tomorrow, part 2: performers. Check back for a conversation about Twitter with Rob Delaney, Doug Benson, Todd Barry, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Huebel and Kevin Biggins.
Phil Davidson likes to tell himself he’s the best-kept secret on Twitter.