Why Do So Many Huge Comedians Refuse to Be Funny on Twitter?
Back in the honeymoon phase, Twitter and comedians enjoyed a mutually beneficial marriage full of lust and laughs. Twitter’s character limit (first 140, then a sexy 280!) lent itself perfectly to sarcastic one-liners, juicing the 2010s careers of quipsters like Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman.
But it also created comedy careers for unknowns like midwestern IT wonk Bryan Donaldson, who landed a staff job on Late Night with Seth Meyers based on the polished snark of his Twitter feed. As Donaldson’s bio now reads, “I write penis jokes that a handsome man reads on tv.”
It used to be that a middle-aged guy from Peoria would have no chance at that kind of gig, but Twitter democratized the process, says Meyers. “We used to look at smaller samples, now you can look back and see what a person thought was funny for the past calendar year.”
Emmy-nominated Megan Anram (Parks and Rec, The Good Place, Silicon Valley) also used Twitter to fine-tune her joke writing--and get noticed by the people hiring for comedy jobs. “There is some tweet out there that no one has written yet that completely sums up the human experience in a hundred forty characters,” she said during her early tweeting days, “and every day I wake up and hope that I figure it out.”
Build your fan base, promote your live shows, create an entire freaking career. Why wouldn’t comedians want to leverage Twitter to turbocharge their success? Like many marriages, however, what looked like a blissful future has morphed into a resentful reality. Comics like Albert Brooks have cold feet when it comes to tying the knot, calling Twitter “the devil’s playground.” Here are just some of the reasons comics are choosing a conscious uncoupling from Funny Twitter.
Twitter is exhausting.
Social media is a ravenous beast, one that demands to be fed on the daily. That can be fun for a couple months, or even a few years. But eventually, the continuous spewing of witty bon mots saps your comedy strength.
“It’s the pressure of the immediacy of everything now,” says comic and Twitter superstar Paul F. Tompkins. “Just as a consumer of social media, you see how quickly everything moves. So there’s a fear of getting lost in the onslaught, a feeling that you have to keep piping up or people will forget you exist. I have definitely had the thought, on more than one occasion, ‘I have to tweet something.’ ”
A comedian can keep running on the hamster joke wheel--or choose to step off, even in the face of fan backlash. Taking a break to write a movie or work on a stand-up special can bring tweets asking “Are you dead?” At least, that was the experience of Bo Burnham, who told The New York Times in 2016 that he rejected the idea of being required to provide an “IV drip of entertainment” to his followers.
It’s pretty apparent that Burnham, the comic discovered on YouTube, has decided constant jokes aren’t required. These days, Burnham’s Twitter is updated only sporadically to promote new projects.
Twitter is cruel.
Back in the good ol’ Dane Cook days (say, 2006-2008), social media was a happening spot for swinging comics, a place to connect with hardcore fans, promote upcoming gigs, and get noticed by the industry.
“I started doing stand-up when Myspace was happening,” Whitney Cummings told Judd Apatow. “That’s how I first started hustling for spots. It was around 2004, and I was hustling, hustling, hustling. And it was working until Twitter. Then came all that feedback.”
“Feedback” meaning “faceless people talking sh*t about you without repercussions.” Cummings soon discovered that feedback could easily become weapons with which insecure comics (read: all comics) could hurt themselves.
“You get a hundred good compliments,” says Gayle King, “but then there’s that one negative one from someone who you don’t even know, whose opinion you shouldn’t even care about. The thing is, you can say stuff on social media with no accountability, and that’s not a good thing.”
Couple that with algorithms that reward our worst impulses -- hey, this tweet incenses people so let's show it to everyone -- and you get a cesspool that some comics are choosing not to swim in.
Twitter can get you canned.
One initial appeal of Twitter to comics was using it as a virtual open mic--shout out a random funny thought, see if you can get a response, maybe build an act!
That is, until some of those late-night throwaways started coming back to haunt comics.
Disney fired James Gunn from his Guardians of the Galaxy 3 gig once the agitators behind Pizzagate began combing through his old tweets. Young Gunn, fancying himself a provocateur, had made a number of off-color jokes in his early Twitter days, including some that alluded to pedophelia. He’d already apologized for the old jokes, vowing to stop “saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction.” (Disney later rehired him after the furor died down.)
Trever Noah nearly forfeited his Daily Show job as well after Buzzfeed dug up edgy old jokes that referenced the Holocaust and domestic violence. Kevin Hart actually lost his gig hosting the Oscars after old tweets resurfaced that can fairly be classified as homophobic. (It was basically a rehash of a bit he’d done in a 2010 comedy special.)
None of this is to defend offensive jokes. But since most comedians tread in the world of “shocking and trying to get a reaction,” as Gunn put it, tweeting borderline humor is a dangerous business. That’s especially true when single sentences can be taken out of context later to be scrutinized under the public microscope.
Some comics have other things on their minds.
Judd Apatow might be the most influential person in movie comedy since the turn of the century, but don’t turn to his Twitter feed if you’re looking for yuks. Instead, he’s probably imploring you to vote, condemning some white supremicist, or sharing his dismay at a Trump rally gone weird. You have to scroll a bit to get to something about Bros, the new Apatow-produced comedy that hits theaters later this month.
Ben: I’ll tweet something about Haiti and there’ll be someone who’ll tweet back, “Be funny! Who cares about Haiti!”
Jim: “Who cares about Haiti? Put your penis in your zipper and shut up.”
Ben: “I’m unfollowing you, you’re not funny. You just care about Haiti.”
Judd: I get that for retweeting your Haiti things! “Stop retweeting Ben’s Haiti things!”
Jim: “Who do you think you are, funnyman?”
It makes one wonder why anyone bothers to tweet at all. “It’s distraction,” admits Apatow. “There’s better things I should be doing with my time.”
And for a comedian’s career, there are probably safer ways to spend their time as well.
“It’s crazy that an entire person can be reduced to a few cherry-picked tweets,” says comedian Laurie Kilmartin. “I think in the early days, comics treated Twitter like an open mic, but clearly it’s not. I worry that I’m gonna die after a lame or poorly worded tweet and then that will be my epitaph.”
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