How Jonny Sun Creates Community with Humor and Philosophy
Jonny Sun, known on Twitter as “Jomny Sun,” leaned into Weird Twitter starting around 2011 or 2012 under the assumed identity of an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.” His tweets vary between wholly humorous and wholly philosophical, often landing somewhere in between. He has gained the attention of 138,000 people, among whom is Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of Hamilton. Sun’s creativity also stretches beyond the confines of 140 characters, including a recent piece for McSweeney’s.
I recently sat down with Sun to piece together a more complete understanding of this “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.” Sun, who studied engineering and architecture and is now pursuing a PhD in Urban Studies and Planning, places a great deal of emphasis on community. He draws much of his inspiration from the timeline he “curates” on Twitter, and has an innate curiosity for every element of a creative endeavor. His interest in the components of creation, whether for buildings, cities, or top-notch tweets was a clear through-line in his approach to finding creative fulfilment.
You sort of have two types of tweets. You have philosophical tweets, and you have comical tweets. Do you prefer one to the other? What feels more natural to you?
I like doing both. Not just both, but really just a range of different genres and different ideas. I think the best part about Twitter is having that multitude of different writers and different styles come together. Your timeline is curated. You curate your timeline to get a multitude of all these different choices, and I like the idea of reflecting that. As writers and as people on Twitter, and just in general, no one really is just one type of person, right? Everyone contains multitudes of themselves. I like the idea of Twitter being the place where you can express and experiment with all these different styles and different voices. I think that’s probably most true to what a person actually is like and what a writer actually does. I like both. I don’t think I’d be happier doing one or the other only, but I love the idea of mixing those two and bringing them together.
They’re definitely kind of blended in a lot of your tweets, where they’re still humorous but also little bites of philosophical points. When you talk about how there is a multitude of identities that are coming through on your timeline, is that where you kind of draw most of your inspiration?
I think so. The other cool thing about Twitter is that it’s kind of a giant writer’s room at all times. I mean, you see that just with the content of the tweets, they’re like joke formats and what people are talking about; I feel like there’s this great energy of collaborative thinking, like they’re bouncing off what you see. Not in a plagiarizing way, but you really do get inspired by what you see.
It’s a part of the idea of it being a community.
Yeah, I think when I got into Twitter, in like 2011 or 2012, was when I started following a lot of people and following poets and stuff. There used to be, and I don’t see it much now, but there used to be this kind of more confessional spirit I think to the humor of the people I was following on Twitter and it was kind of… I think to me it represented that mix of poetic, confessional, kind of funny, quirky tweets. I think that’s kind of, at least among the people I follow, disappeared into a focus on pure comedy, or whatever you want to call it. But that was the style that really inspired me to start being on Twitter and writing on Twitter. I think that really stuck with me.
Yeah, I think your tweets differ a bit from the current trend in the sense that… there is a lot of negativity and sarcasm that gets touted as funny just for being that. A lot of people on Twitter these days are eager to tell you that they “have no filter.” Do you make a conscious effort to steer away from that sort of thing?
I think it’s both conscious and I just don’t think I’m good at irony and sarcasm. I don’t know how to write that way. I also just like the idea of being positive. I think the irony thing has its place and it works on Twitter really well when it does work.
It’s interesting. A lot of people talk about how Facebook and Twitter are this kind of platform where you just upload your life and “brag” and people talk about how they end up feeling jealous or bad about themselves because of all the good stuff on social media platforms, and at least from my perspective I feel like it’s made a complete pendulum swing now there’s just so much more negativity on the internet.
I totally agree. I think I’ve seen that happen for the three years that I’ve really been on Twitter. I get the feeling that it’s probably swinging back now, hopefully to something a bit more positive. I don’t know if that’s what I follow or if I’m curating that myself. I like the idea that the irony phase is kind of like a swing of the pendulum.
Do you feel like, especially recently, you’ve been coming more into yourself as opposed to your character “Jomny Sun?”
I think, and I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing or just natural progression, but I think when it started off as the “Weird Twitter” voice or whatever it was a lot more anonymous and… I don’t know if I would call it a “character,” but definitely a voice, with the typos and a kind of character through that… I think lately it’s been nice to be a bit more specifically personal and just have some of this stuff come through in my own voice.
Is there are fear that’s kind of subsided about putting yourself out there, like the real you as opposed to a persona?
Yeah, I definitely wanted to be anonymous. I think that’s part of… that kind of the appeal of it, to be this anonymous entity on Twitter. I definitely started as that and I was very afraid of putting my face online or having anybody know who I was. I think if people are interested — and I like this about Twitter too — in who someone is, you can find out a bit about them. But I don’t feel the need to announce myself. I think there’s more comfort now in being less anonymous. But I definitely started out as this anonymous thing. There are a lot of people who like Twitter comedy, comedy specifically for Twitter, that are anonymous, and I think they like it that way. I definitely understand how that works.
Yeah, and I think the character in a way helps the reading of that comedy, it’s a different effect to have an anonymous cartoon or something read the jokes, versus reading them from standups or people who are clearly on Twitter to advance their comedy career. It’s just a different vibe.
Totally, it feels more comfortable because you don’t have that feeling of somebody constantly promoting themself.
Yeah, exactly, and it’s almost like you’re safe to enjoy what they’re writing if you know that it’s not directly tied to that. It’s just nice, the spirit of writing with the anonymous accounts. The people who are tied to a real identity on Twitter, the nicest thing is when you sense that they’re just doing it to write on Twitter; that there’s no agenda. There’s no trying to be famous or anything, or self-promotion. If you can read that they’re just happy to be writing comedy on Twitter just for the sake of it, that’s when it’s the best. I think Twitter is a legitimate medium for comedy; a lot of people are doing cool stuff on Twitter that you really can’t do anywhere else.
Most mediums have their own sort of philosophies. Like, standup comedy places a big emphasis on direct and open connection as a part of transmitting humor. Do you think there’s a philosophy to Twitter?
That’s a good question. I think one aspect is because of the medium, like the shortness, the constraint of 140 characters, I think a lot of people are writing on Twitter as a way to hone down jokes, or at least that’s how I’ve always approached it; as a way to stay within those constraints and to get ideas across. There’s a quote about comedy, “Every joke can always be shorter.” The ability to take a thought and condense it into one sentence or one joke or one phrase I think is kind of cool and people are playing within the constraints of that.
Then the idea of connection and community is a big one, too, because Twitter facilitates this idea of creating connections and having your circle of people following you and inspiring you. I guess… and this is speaking for the best of people on Twitter, I think there is this idea of selflessness and being part of a community and being part of something that is very nice and positive.
Have you always been the kind of person who likes to collect these little bits of philosophy? A lot of people have a notebook or something for that kind of thing. Is that something you ever did or do?
When I was a kid I read a lot of things, and the things that appealed to me the most were things that were fun and kind of designed for kids but also had a stream of darkness through them. The best kids’ book was Where the Wild Things Are. And Calvin and Hobbes is an inspiration to everyone, but I remember… I guess looking back on it now, it was really the existentialist ideas that were in those things that I liked; there was an underlying sadness to the best kids’ books. As I started developing as a writer, I’ve developed sketches, I’ve never been happy to do just like a purely comedic slapstick sketch. The stuff I was happiest writing about were things that had some sort of existentialist ideas or that were kind of pushing this sadness, this underlying sadness or this underlying drama. That’s something that I’ve tried to keep up as a writer for sure, in any medium.
If there were no Twitter, and feel free to look at that either as if Twitter were to stop existing from here on out, or if Twitter had never existed at all, where do you think you would be and what would you be doing?
The thing about Twitter that’s been nice for me and for a lot of people on Twitter, is doing comedy as a side project. They’re doing it as a passion thing, purely out of the sense that they just like writing jokes and they like having it up there. I know people who are on Twitter who are lawyers or like they’re doing their PhDs, or they’re doctors, they all just have these lives outside of Twitter and they tweet purely just for the joy of writing jokes. I think without Twitter, I’d probably be on a similar path that I am now, but Twitter’s just like the enrichment part of my life, I guess. Without it I’d probably still be involved in comedy and writing either sketch or maybe standup. I’ve never tried standup, but I love doing sketch and theater. I’d probably continue doing that. If Twitter stopped now… I mean I hope it doesn’t die, and personally I think it’s too much of a staple of the internet now to die out completely, and I hope that’s true. If it’s gone… I’ll keep writing, and I’ll keep doing stuff and writing comedy and working on projects, it just won’t be on Twitter.
And you have your own main-road sort of thing; you went to school for architecture and now you’re doing a PhD in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.
Yeah. I came in from the urban design side, but there’re a lot of people in the department who come from the policy side or the environmental side. It’s a very multi-disciplinary department focusing on cities. My bachelors was in engineering and while I was doing engineering I needed to do something artistic as well, so while I was doing engineering I did some comedy stuff. I did some theater, some visual art, all this stuff on the creative side because I wasn’t feeling fulfilled from just engineering. I think architecture brought those two together in a bit of nicer way, the logic/math side and the creative side. Urban Studies is kind of a continuation in the sense that cities are just multidisciplinary in nature. I think to tackle the idea of what it is to design a city you need to look at it from a bunch of different angles.
If you were to starting writing for, say, a popular TV show, do you think you’d still be involved in urban planning and architecture?
I’d like to, yeah. I think if I were to be involved professionally as a writer, part of me would also not be 100% fulfilled just by that. I think maybe this was a problem for me. Maybe this is a problem, but whenever I do something I always feel the need to have something on the side to contrast whatever it is I’m doing. My focus has typically been more on the logical side or the technical side, and then having a creative side project. I think if I were to focus on having something creative as the main thing, then I think would still want to compliment that with other stuff. I just like having a lot of things going on.
Do you feel more fulfilment from one of those more than the other? Like you find your technical pursuits to be more fulfilling than creative pursuits?
I just like learning about a lot of stuff. I think in terms of the creative stuff… I like learning a lot. My general thought process is, if something inspires me, if I see something or I witness something or I hear something that I think is pretty interesting, I immediately want to jump into that. I’m immediately like, “I want to see if I can do that.” Somehow to take that and process it and spit it out as something that comes from me in a way. I could probably have worded that better.
You kind of enjoy having a variety of expression more than delving all into one?
Yeah, because even when I go deep into something, there are just like… I think with any project or anything you see that’s made… if it’s a film or if it’s standup or it’s a building or a piece of art… There are so many factors and so many people involved in making that thing happen, so the more you get into learning about how a film is made, the more you find all the different roles. I would get inspired by all the different things that happened in the film.
We saw Hamilton last night, and it’s not just Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s amazing and who wrote the whole thing, the music and lyrics and the book and stars in it, but then there’s Tommy Kail, the director, who brought his own vision and influences in. The lighting design for that show was amazing. You just recognize how many people come together to make the whole thing. There’s Alex Lacamoire who’s brilliant too, who’s the musical director, orchestrator and conductor. You realize that all the stuff happens with a team. I think once you realize that they’re all different fields… I just get interested in all those fields and I just want to do them or learn about them or find people who you could like pull together with and just do all that stuff.
What is one thing that you think might make everyone who has read this interview’s life just a little bit better?
I think… acknowledging we’re all going to die. If you recognize that, then you really know that your time is limited and you just have to do what makes you happy. That means have to find love, you have to do the things you want to do, you have to make things, you have to follow your interests and your passions and yeah, that you’re going to die one day. You’ll want to have done all that stuff before you’re gone, I guess. I don’t know.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.