Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why Twitter isn't Funny

What would celebrities do without Twitter? This communication channel brings unprecedented transparency to a famous person’s life while allowing them to maintain a safe distance from the crazies. They (or their team of publicists) can spew forth their personal news such as projects or live performances, give the people random musings, or—as most comedians choose—use the platform to deliver jokes. The problem with this is that Twitter just isn’t funny. But why?

The one-liner is dead. If you’re going to tell a joke in 140 characters or less, it’s going to be a one-liner. There have been a lot of comedians over the years who were excellent at telling this style of joke, and nearly all of them hit their peak before the current social media era. Actually, this is a joke style that thrived in the mid-20th century and waned after cable TV came about. There just aren’t that many comedians that choose the one-liner style anymore, and yet this is exactly the approach that they’re pigeonholed into using when they try to make people laugh with Twitter.

The one-liner greats—Groucho Marx, Rodney Dangerfield, George Carlin, and the King of One-Liners, Henny Youngman—have all passed on. Modern comedians generally choose a more casual, often offensive route. Though these comedians were sometimes known for their shocking subject matter, the focus of the humor wasn’t to gross-out, disturb, or make the audience feel uncomfortable. There’s only a handful of people these days who can deliver a one-liner without it sounding like an old-fashioned cheesy gag.

Shocking the audience is a more sensitive subject these days. Lenny Bruce and not-as-good comics like Andrew Dice Clay may have broken ground by shocking their audiences and pushing the envelope, but they did it in a closed setting: A nightclub, a movie, a comedy record, etc. In all these cases, they knew what they were doing, how it would be received, and they had a team of people working to preserve that person’s image. Audiences in those times experienced a widespread cultural shift weren’t surprised when they heard something offensive, especially before the more recent push for a more politically correct atmosphere.

Thanks to the Internet, broadcasting is no longer a one-way conversation. Couple this two-way model of communication with mobile phones that can connect to the Internet from everywhere and you have a broadcast device in every pocket. This allows for immediate public reactions by just about everyone to voice their opinions while their comments are still fresh in their minds. Now, if a comedian pisses someone off, the audience can tell everyone they know all about it before they have time to forget or calm down.

Text kills the comedian’s voice. The way a comedian tells a joke is every bit as important as the joke itself. Indeed, “Timing is everything,” and most people don’t have good timing, so when they read a joke, it ends up not being nearly as funny as it would have been if the pro had said it aloud. Sure, comedians can write successful books, but that medium usually involves a much longer format that provokes thought and utilizes long setups in order to reach a different kind of funny. When you reduce that joke to 140 characters or less, it’s all about the wordplay and the way it’s delivered. Since most people aren’t comedians, it really comes down to just the wordplay when Twitter’s the delivery method. And most one-liners, let’s face it, just aren’t that good. That’s why you have to tell a million of them.

So let’s look at some Twitter accounts. These are people who are supposedly funny, right?

My mother told me that if i didn't stop touching the CN Tower everyone in Canada would go blind. -Jim Carrey

I like a girl with a little junk in her trunk. To be clear, not a big ass but small clumps of debris in her suitcase. -Dane Cook

Eclipse gum: guaranteed to make your bad breath smell like minty bad breath! -Sarah Silverman

Wait, at the end of "Shout", the singer tells everyone to, "Take it easy." Hey asshole, you're the one that riled us up. -Patton Oswalt

Why is it whenever someone says, “If you know what I mean” I always wish I didn’t. If you know what I mean. -Jim Gaffigan

If these people are comedians, why aren't these tweets very funny? There’s a good reason for that. It’s because they’re human. They’re just like you and me. They post random stuff to their Twitter accounts just like we post our random crap that no one wants to read. The reason it comes off sounding like a joke is because we expect them to be telling jokes, and they’re used to telling jokes, so it’s sort of phrased like a joke, even if it’s not intended to be one. With the exception of Dane Cook who tries to vomit ten one-liners a day onto Twitter, everyone else is pretty much just relating a daily musing without trying too hard to be funny. Hey, you wanted to peer into their personal lives, right? That’s why you followed them on Twitter, isn’t it? Well, you got it, and it turns out that it’s not actually that funny.

So then you’ve got other comedians who are actually intending to use their Twitter accounts to deliver jokes, but without any filter. They’re restricted to the one-liner, relying on the reader to capture the correct tone, inflection, and timing. Add to that comedians who have a history of being highly offensive and making tasteless jokes that were previously tolerable in comedy clubs who are now dropping one-liners on the people’s medium. For example, this series of Japanese tsunami-related jokes by Gilbert Gottfried cost him his job as the Aflac duck:

I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, "They'll be another one floating by any minute now."

In the past, we’d just yell, “Too soon! Too soon!” and shake it off, but now that everyone can instantly communicate their shock—directly to the comedian, even—the outrage just snowballs after something like this. Gilbert Gottfried’s one-liners sank because the audience is too sensitive, because we’re not looking at his squinty eyes and hearing his irritating voice as he says them, and, as mentioned before,  one-liners just aren’t that funny anymore. How is a comedian supposed to thrive on Twitter?

They don’t have to. They can use Twitter for what it was originally intended for: Updates and communication. They’ll tell people when and where to hear them being funny. Talking one-on-one with fans through Twitter is the new autograph, so it’s totally worth their time. But they don’t need to utilize that space to be hilarious. They have dozens of other channels to accomplish that. Here’s what Louis CK had to say in an interview with CNN:

I'm not motivated to entertain people through Twitter, so just by having Twitter and not saying anything, I make people mad. People write me, and they're like, "Why don't you fucking entertain me?" Or they go, "Stop promoting yourself and say something funny." But I'm not a Twitterer! It's not my profession. It's not what I do. I just opened a Twitter account to tell people what's going on, and once in a while I get an impulse to say something.

We should all do ourselves a favor and stop expecting Twitter to be funny. We follow these people because we want to peer into their personal lives, not because we expect this to be a method by which to be entertained. Just check their updates, find out how you can hear their jokes, and then go to them. Don’t just sit around waiting for the jokes to come to you.

[UPDATE 7.17]: Jerry Seinfeld opened a Twitter account a few days ago. Fifth tweet:
Going to Maine today to pick up kid from camp. Why did Nazis call it Concentration Camp? So misleading in so many ways.
Perhaps Twitter just died?


  1. AnonymousJuly 09, 2011

    @FauxPelini is funny.

  2. That's true. There's a couple. Demetri Martin actually IS funny, which is ironic considering I can't stand his standup. Maybe it's specifically because I CAN'T hear his voice that it works better for me as plain text.