It’s about a quarter to ten on a Thursday and I’m sitting in front of my computer, doing the math.
“#ParksAndRecreation” is 19 characters, and those are a must. I’m trying to decide to how many other of the food terms Tom Haverford just made up I can fit into a single Twitter post. I go with “Food Rake” (Fork) and “Chickie-Chickie Parm-Parm” (obvious) and hit the opaque Tweet button. A few people Retweet it, in as much awe as I am at one of the funniest bits that the show has ever aired. Almost as quickly, though, come the not even passive, just plain old aggressive, posts from followers, angry that there are people (me, specifically) spoiling the jokes of their favorite shows.
It makes sense. In this age of Hulu and DVR and West Coast Time Zones, maybe 30% of the total audience of any given episode of Parks & Recreation is watching it at 9:30 PM, EST. Even I should know better. I used to work the night shift and Twitter had started to be more dangerous on a Thursday night than it ever was during a new episode of Lost. After all, it was way more common to respond to some bombshell of serialized narrative with a vague “HOLY SHIT #WTFFFFF #JINANDSUN” than anything truly and dangerously specific. When it comes to comedy, though, one’s first instinct is to post the amazing thing you heard verbatim. “Small Miracles, Lana >>>>> Danga Zone #Archer,” “We Love The F Word #ModernFamily,” “If tea is what he wants than, a-‘T’ is what he shall receive. #Delocated.” And so on.
The instinct, though, is hard to shake. The best comedies on television these bring you back to those days in Junior High, when you and your friends were every Bill Haverchuck, huddled in your corner of the cafeteria, reliving the gags you saw on TV the night before. Only now there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of other people watching the kinds of things that used to be considered completely niche and ascetic. It’s hard to resist the tiny thrill of a new post appearing under “Your Tweets, retweeted.” Someone else out there, laughing at the same things you were.
There’s no denying that the eternal key to comedy is the pure surprise of something you were never expecting. What was so incredibly funny about Tom Haverford’s litany of food substitutes was that you had no idea what was coming next, or when it would end. For the 70% of the people who were watching this episode after the first wave of Tweets and ReTweets poured in, after dozens of animated GIFs on tumblr recreated the sequence complete with subtitles, one has to imagine some of the impact was diluted.
So who’s right? Do the stragglers have a right to be angry because they weren’t able to watch it within like fifty seconds of its first airing? Do the Twitterers have the right to finally be able to share the kinds of things that used to be whispered over with hundreds of like-minded people? As with so many things these days, everyone is right and everyone is wrong. There’s no easy solution. Tapping the friend next to you on the shoulder and pointing to a hilarious gag has become quoting it to your followers. Having a joke spoiled for you on Twitter is just the latest version of some doucher in the movie theater saying to no one “Oh is this the part where Brian Doyle Murray tells Chevy Chase they like to send out a mailer?”
Both sides could alleviate their sides of the problem pretty easily. Quoters could maybe wait a few days before spoiling their favorite gags. If you know you’ll be watching 30 Rock on Friday while you’re supposed to be working, you could stay off Twitter between 7:58 PM EST and 10:31 PM EST. (Or you could just start unfollowing people. Wait, no, don’t do that. We can change. We promise. Just don’t unfollow us.)
No one is forcing either party to suffer through yelling or being yelled at. But it’s a strange conflation of two technologies reaching their heights of popularity and ease at the same time, even as they work at cross purposes. DVR and Hulu has made it easier than ever to watch what you want, whenever you want; while Twitter and Tumblr (and every program that lets you convert video footage into a GIF) have made the instant regurgitation of whatever happens to be running through that head of yours simpler than it’s ever been.
It’s likely that neither side is going to come out on top in any definitive way. Undoubtedly the people who make and air the shows getting quoted and then getting complaints about getting quoted love the attention. Showrunners are frequently citing examples of whatever viral appropriation of their jokes have shown up on the internet on their own Twitter feeds. There is a clear party getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop here, though. Having a joke spoiled for you is way worse than getting an angry reply or unfollowed because of it. Maybe someday the ultimate result of all this spoiling and complaining will be the return of something that died off around the same time as the long remote: Appointment Television.
Benjamin Birdie is a contributor to @FakeAPStylebook and artist of the webcomic The Rack. Among other writerly, cartooning type things.