Short and Funny, Part 2: Conversations with Twitter’s Top Comedic Performers
Yesterday, we heard from some professional comedy scribes who are prolific joke writers on Twitter. Today’s segment will feature thoughts and insights from Twitter-savvy performers (all of whom also write) you might know from their stand-up, film or television work.
Other than the escalating presence of tweets plugging shows and gigs, there isn’t much difference between the feeds of writers and those who are primarily performers. Both are trying to make you laugh. And some performers, including those who contributed to this story, will plug their work in offbeat and clever ways. Solicitation as entertainment. Double bonus.
Talking to us today about Twitter are Rob Delaney, Doug Benson, Todd Barry, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Huebel and Kevin Biggins.
Rob Delaney, @robdelaney. LA-based stand-up and television writer (The Smoking Gun Presents, The IT Crowd).
Sample tweet: If the Disco’s too loud to chat, it’s best to just glare at your target & point at your ding-dong or yum-yum while groaning.
Doug Benson, @dougbenson. LA-based stand-up and host of The Benson Interruption on Comedy Central and “Doug Loves Movies” podcast.
Sample tweet: Sarah Palin still calls herself Gov. When I quit my job, I didn’t go around calling myself Dishwasher Doug Benson.
Todd Barry, @toddbarry. NY-based stand-up and actor (Louie, Delocated, The Wrestler).
Sample tweet: Super bummed that the guy chewing gum like he had a live bat in his mouth got off the subway after one stop.
Peter Serafinowicz, @serafinowicz. London-based actor, comedian, writer, composer (Running Wilde, Look Around You, Spaced).
Sample tweet: The bottom line is this: the crease between the buttocks.
Rob Huebel, @robhuebel. LA-based stand-up, writer, actor (Human Giant, Children’s Hospital, I Love You Man).
Sample tweet: My dog tries to act all cool for his friends by using toilet terms like ‘hot whizz’ and ‘paint the town brown.’ So annoying.
Kevin Biggins, @thebiggidea. LA-based stand-up and television writer (The Cleveland Show).
Sample tweet: I bet the “In Memoriam” portion of the Adult Film Awards is half the show.
When did you first start using Twitter and what got you started?
Rob Delaney: Feb. 26, 2009 (my new Android Twitter app told me that.)
I was in a hotel in Minneapolis waiting to go do a show at a club and Louis CK posted on Facebook that he’d joined Twitter. I admire him, so I thought maybe this silly service where people post a description of the sandwich they just ate wasn’t as stupid as I’d initially thought. After a few months on it, I noticed people were really getting funny and creative on it and I enjoyed the daily pressure/motivation/gratification of being funny for the folks who were kind enough to follow me. It’s wonderful for discovering funny people around the world (literally) who aren’t interested in performing, yet have a real comedic contribution to make, so it does provide the opportunity to be in a virtual writers room throughout the day and I enjoy that aspect a lot. Because of course, I want to make people laugh all the time, whether that’s a good or a bad thing. And if it’s 2pm on a Sunday, I can’t get onstage at the Improv but I can tweet about Maya Angelou being the executive producer of Jersey Shore (which is true, by the way).
Kevin Biggins: I started using Twitter in Jan. of 2010. I held out for a while on Twitter because I wasn’t into the “let me know where you’re at and what you’re doing RIGHT NOW” aspect of it. I thought it was mostly a celebrity thing and very vain. My friends Alec Sulkin and Steve Mazepa both joined Twitter and strictly posted jokes on their page. They encouraged me to get involved. I followed them for a while as well as Mike Desilets and Artie Johann. I started to see what Twitter could be: a joke telling contest. I had to get in on the fun. I finally caved and it has consumed my thoughts ever since. It was a good career move. I mean, I’m doing this interview right? It has been great for my career, actually — both for writing and stand-up. I’m able to incorporate tweets into Cleveland Show scripts and Twitter gives me instant feedback on jokes I’m wanting to try for stand-up. Twitter is basically stand-up for people with stage fright.
Todd Barry: I signed up in late 2008, but didn’t really post anything for a while. Then I got into it. I like it more than I want to.
Peter Serafinowicz: I’ve been on almost 2 years but it’s whizzed (whuzz?) by. I was on Facebook but got disillusioned with it, too much work. Like playing a really boring game. I’m still there nominally but I hardly ever check it.
Doug Benson: I don’t remember when I started or why. It just happened. And I’m glad it did. Twitter gives me the chance to entertain lots of people with my dumb jokes and answer their questions about my dumb life. Seriously, it’s a great way to interact with people who like what I do.
Some comedians are on twitter to increase their profile. You had success before the Twitter boom. So why do you do it?
Rob Huebel: First of all you’re right. I am fucking successful. I bathe in a pool of money like Scrooge McDuck. But (seriously) I guess I do Twitter because I think it’s important
to have a presence where people are looking online. It’s always good to keep your name in front of them and have them connect you with something that’s hopefully funny.
And I always assume most people really don’t know who I am. In a lot of the tweets I get back, I can tell people don’t know Human Giant, Childrens Hospital or anything like that. They’ve just somehow found me or their friends told them to follow me. And that’s cool. They don’t know I’m ‘that guy from that thing’ or whatever. They just want to be entertained, so hopefully I do that.
Todd Barry: When it’s fun, it is really fun. You can post something that might not work in your act, an observation about something that’s going on right then, or something you overheard, and get immediate feedback. And it’s really good for promoting shows. Whenever I use it to announce a tour date, I usually get a positive reaction. Sometimes people even buy tickets.
Peter Serafinowicz: Yeah I’ve had a bit of success, but my profile is still pretty low. I have a kind of cult following I suppose. I did it because my friend @londonfilmgeek recommended it. I didn’t understand it at first, nobody does. You mould it into what you want it to be.
Since you’ve been on Twitter, have you noticed more people recognizing you for your tweets? Has that translated into a bump in your popularity as a standup? Increased ticket sales?
Doug Benson: I don’t think I get recognized for my tweets. I think most people who follow me — I don’t like that expression, it makes me sound like a cult leader — do so because they’ve seen me on television. But ticket sales have definitely increased, because Twitter is a way to let fans know when I am doing a show in their town. And it gives me the opportunity to remind people when my television shows are on, or when my next podcast is going to plop, and all things Doug Benson.
Rob Huebel: Sure. What the fuck is your problem? I just said that in the answer above. Shit man. But yeah, I get a lot of people that come up to me actually and say that they follow me or whatever and they don’t know who I am. They just know me from Twitter. And I think that’s great.
Rob Delaney: Funny, yes. People have stopped me on the street. It is funny and gratifying in a unique way. (In terms of ticket sales) Big time. I don’t go on the road too much, but recent shows I’ve done in Minneapolis, Boston and Seattle benefited in a big way from Twitter.
Peter Serafinowicz: Definitely! For instance, I think more people know about my sketch show via Twitter than from any BBC publicity. For sure. Also, I now know so many US and UK funny people I would never have been aware of pre-2008. People like @robdelaney, @meganamram and @sexyexecutive are super funny on Twitter and it has been my pleasure to get to know them in varying degrees. Then there are people like genius comic artist and writer @mkupperman who I knew before but wasn’t in touch with much because he lives in NYC and I’m usually in London. Twitter makes it easy for us to keep in contact.
Todd Barry: I’ve had people come up to me on street and say they follow me, but I don’t think they only knew me from my Tweets. I mean, I don’t think so.
Kevin Biggins: I think most people recognize me because I’m so handsome. And since joining Twitter, I think my name is definitely out there more within the comedy community. There’s a large demographic of folks who follow people on Twitter for comedy only. I feel like I’m known a tiny bit in this community. Twitter has helped bump my ticket sales up from $0, so that’s cool. I’ve done sets at venues in L.A. (The Comedy Car Hole and The Josh & Josh Show) that advertise upcoming performances on Twitter. I think I’ve gained some fans from those shows. And I’ve met people at those shows who’ve told me they came out to see me because of my tweets.
What are the differences between writing for twitter vs. writing for the stage or page? Does it all blend together?
Peter Serafinowicz: I don’t set aside time, except if I’m doing a PSQA or a Random Words session (where I invite people to bombard me with random words and phrases to inspire me to think of jokes) — I just tweet things as they come to me. I have my phone with me usually so the opportunity is always there. The 140-character form forces you to edit down to the point where it can’t be edited further — it’s a great discipline to learn. Shorter is always funnier! Twitter can be a big distraction if I’m writing a script, or trying to live my life. That for me is its big downside. It’s always on. Spending an extra 5 minutes crafting a joke is usually worthwhile but sometimes you should just put it out exactly as it popped into your head. ‘Send’ is your friend!
Kevin Biggins: It all blends together. For the most part, I write ideas for tweets into my phone while I’m driving. It’s very stupid, but you gotta get that thought down or else you’ll lose it. It’ll sink back into the black tar. I blame pot and alcohol for the inspiration and for the fast forgetfulness. I like to say that Twitter is ruining my life. It’s totally consumed my thoughts in a way that I’m constantly wondering if experiences or observations “could be a tweet.” It can be a bad thing. For example, if I’m at a concert (I like concerts, babes) I’m not 100% “there” enjoying the experience for what it is. That’s because half of the time I’m thinking of tweets and writing them in my phone. But, if a tweet about the concert-going experience is relatable and makes people laugh, I find that to be fulfilling and worth it. It’s all just a part of technology and the world we live in now. That sounded lame, but you know what I’m talking about.
Rob Huebel: 140 characters you idiot. Sometimes you are so stupid I wonder how you got a website. But yeah, Twitter for me is just to throw out a concept or a half of a thought that might get a laugh. It might be a nugget that I could explore in standup. But obviously you’re very limited on twitter. I’ve had fun doing running “bits” on twitter — like a series of tweets to “live tweet” something I’m doing. I’ve done that on long flights to basically throw out dumb airplane jokes. One time I “live tweeted” the Kentucky Derby. But it became a bit of “shit this happening so fast I can’t think of anything funny to say.” And once I did a thing where I tried to set people up on Twitter. They would tweet me a description of themselves and I matched them up with someone else. That was pretty fun. But labor intensive. And I think a lot of people got murdered.
Doug Benson: I rarely sit down and write. I mostly just jot down ideas as they come to me. Or tweet them. And then I work them into the act and see if they work for an audience. I rotate in new material as I tour the country doing shows throughout the year, because I record a new album annually — on 4/20! — and I need a new hour each time. My first three yearly recordings are all available on iTunes.
Rob Delaney: Nothing. Is it funny and are you saying it from a true place inside of you? It can be fantastic and absurd, but is it rooted in something that you care about or at least makes you laugh from a “real” place inside of you? As an example, some people really craft their tweets. You can see them straining, trying to be clever and shoehorn things into it. Those are rarely, if ever, funny. Like I sometimes tweet about Steve Harvey. I do so because he is fascinatingly weird to me. I CARE about Steve Harvey, in my weird way, so I can speak passionately about him.
Assuming a comedian is on twitter to write jokes and not just promote themselves, do you think 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?
Todd Barry: There are people who are great on Twitter, and there are people who are less funny than you think they’d be. I’m not going to name names.
Doug Benson: It’s a certain style of comedy. Lots of comics are great at it, though. That’s a fun thing for me, to be able to read all of my comedian friends and their take on current events or stories from the road. Great comics like Zach Galifiankis, Steven Wright and the late Mitch Hedburg all have acts that consist solely of tweets, most of their jokes are under 140 characters.
Rob Delaney: I won’t name names, but there are people who routinely murder on stage that aren’t funny on Twitter. Now it’s possible they don’t choose to be, but they may prefer to talk about their audition or what they ate than tell a joke and that is their prerogative. The cool thing about Twitter is that everyone uses it differently. Some people do a lot of talking back and forth. I don’t do a lot of that, just because I generally prefer to visit a page that is just jokes or just funny things. (I don’t think less of someone) if I’ve seen them kill live. I can’t necessarily point to exactly why, but maybe if they’re more of a personality-based comedian, their style might not translate to Twitter as well? Do they view Twitter as a place to vent or check in with fans? That’ll likely produce a less interesting feed than someone whose goal is to entertain (on Twitter). Twitter is now, Twitter is visceral. Nowhere to hide. You’re funny or you’re not, those are the choices. I love that! I love the pressure! Nowhere to hide! It gets me high, legitimately.
Peter Serafinowicz: Some very funny real-life comedians are not funny on Twitter, and vice versa. It is a pure form of comedy, boiling jokes right down to their (funny)bones. (BTW I also follow lots of non-comedians and non-showbiz people.)
Kevin Biggins: I think Twitter is a very good measuring stick of humor. You have to get your joke across in a very concise space. It’s hard to do. One word can make the difference and I’ve missed the mark plenty of times. I beat myself up a bit if I feel my tweet wasn’t as sharp as it could have been. Also, sometimes you can write “Shitty-shitty-poop-poop” and some people will laugh. Sometimes blunt and stupid is funny because it’s so simple. Who knows? My goal is to make my buddies chuckle in their cubicles. If a bunch of other strangers and hot girls laugh, well, that’s just a bonus. It’s a little disappointing to see some of the comedians you’ve idealized be unfunny on Twitter. But, they have nothing to prove. They’ve been hilarious in other capacities. It just feels like they’re staying in the league a year too long, like that asshole Brett Favre.
Rob Huebel: I think people use Twitter for different things and in different ways. For example I don’t ever write back to people. I read everything they write to me. But I prefer my page to just be content and not 1/2 of a conversation between me and some kid in Ohio. But to your point, some comedians don’t like to sit down and write stuff for free. I totally get that. That doesn’t mean they’re not funny. It’s kind of a specific format and you either have fun doing it, or you don’t. For me, I try not to put too much thought into it (obviously). Hopefully my page presents kind of a persona that is entertaining.
Again, if you disagree, come to my house and I will fucking fight you. But no nut shots.
Do you ever incorporate your tweets into your act, like taking something that might be a nugget on Twitter and expanding it? Ever hold anything back because it might be more lucrative in other mediums (i.e. film, television)?
Kevin Biggins: I absolutely use tweets in my stand-up act. I like to throw tweets into every set to see how they’ll play in front of a live audience. Often times, tweets spark a premise that turns into a longer bit on stage. I don’t separate tweets from stand-up bits. They are all just ideas I work out. Before Twitter, my “tweets” were just scribbles on post-it notes, stuffed into various drawers around my apartment. At least now they are all in one place and I can read them. Because I do get paid to write jokes for my career, posting stuff on Twitter does kind of seem like I’m giving jokes away for free, but fuck it. They are all my ideas. I can use them for stand-up or for The Cleveland Show if they work in that capacity. I guess if I had an idea that I thought could work for a Cleveland episode or a movie, I wouldn’t post it on Twitter. Fortunately, I don’t have any great ideas for episodes or films, so it works out.
Rob Huebel: The stuff I usually tweet is pretty dumb. Hopefully funny but just dumb, absurd or weirdo stuff. I doubt you would find a lot of lucrative ideas in my posts. I think some of my stuff would translate to standup or could be a premise for a bit, but when I have an idea for a movie or a TV thing I don’t tweet that. I take that shit to the bank and tell them to advance me my money.
Doug Benson: (Editor’s Note: Doug Benson incorporates live-tweeting on his television program showcasing stand-up, The Benson Interruption.) Yes. I just thought, since most comedians I know use Twitter, it would be a fun exercise to take turns reading tweets that we have written. Why should those jokes just appear on Twitter and then disappear forever? I read tweets in my act and on my CDs, so I just took it to the next step by featuring it on the TV show. Which airs Friday nights at midnight, 11 central, on Comedy Central, by the way.
Todd Barry: If I think of something that would work in my act, I probably wouldn’t post it on Twitter. But I am excited when I think of something that might work on Twitter. I did Doug Benson’s show, The Benson Interruption, and it was fun reading our tweets out loud. I have mentioned my tweets on stage before, and talked about the reaction to them, but I wouldn’t want to do too much of that. It sounds a little weird to quote yourself.
Rob Delaney: Yes, I absolutely build standup sets around tweets. I don’t read them like one or two-liners, rather I notice themes in a group of tweets then build on that.
What are your thoughts on the future of twitter and comedy? Will it continue to be as pervasive as it is right now? Can you envision a day when you’ll say “Ah, screw it, I’m done?”
Peter Serafinowicz: I don’t know. For now, it’s immeasurably helpful for me and many people I know.
Todd Barry: Yeah, I remember when Friendster an MySpace were huge, and they clearly aren’t now, so I guess it’s possible that it will fizzle. But I think the simplicity of it will keep it around for a while.
Doug Benson: I could see people losing interest in it. I could totally get sick of it. But for now, I love it.
Rob Huebel: Eventually Twitter will die out and we will all go “that was really stupid…why did we do that?” But I guess I’ll keep at it until I get bored or get killed by dryhumping wolves.
Kevin Biggins: Some days I think about just stopping and I won’t look at Twitter for a few hours. But, then I go back. Might be addicted to it. Not sure. I think with shows like Shit My Dad Says, Twitter has made its mark on mainstream comedy. It’s happening now! I think it will only continue to grow. I’m excited to see what happens. And that sentiment goes for everything. Have you seen used the Shazam app? Fucking yikes! That thing blows my mind every time.
On Twitter and its earning potential:
Rob Delaney: Twitter has led directly to jobs for me.
Peter Serafinowicz: I don’t know how to make money from anything.
Kevin Biggins: I got laid once for a specific tweet. I’d like that kind of stuff to continue.
Phil Davidson likes to tell himself he’s the best-kept secret on Twitter.