Comedy for the Twitter age

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017 - 4:47pm

The founders of LinkedIn certainly never envisioned “Being funny on the internet” as an acceptable headline for a profile on their platform — but here we are. People tweet two-bit one-liners, people get paid for tweeting two-bit one-liners, people consider tweeting two-bit one-liners their day job — and nowadays for good reason. Amateur Twitter comedienne Kelly Oxford turned a few years of tweets into TV pilots bought by CBS and NBC, as one example. The paradigm shift in modern humor that has come thanks to the advent of social media remains hard to wrap one’s head around, but trying to chronicle the ways in which the art and form of comedy have adapted is an earnest place where we can start to understand it all.

With a genesis in countless hours of caffeine-fueled brainstorming, Twitter was birthed as an alternative, short-form communication tool for podcasting startup Odeo. But what started as a meager sketch of ideas became significant enough for employees of Odeo to ditch their initial aspirations and turn Twitter into their bonafide dayjob.

An early sketch of a Twitter prototype.

An early sketch of a Twitter prototype. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Jack Dorsey


And despite the founders’ audacity in making Twitter their everyday focus, pinning down the actual purpose of the service was still a task at hand for them — co-founder Evan Williams was interviewed in 2009 saying “[with] Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn’t replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is.”

Considering Evan’s words, it starts to get easier to understand why Twitter has assumed such a significant space in the realm of modern entertainment. There’s some beauty to find in the notion that the Twitter we know is fundamental to the culture we live in, and that the Twitter we knew is significant to a culture that has come and gone — all at the hands of the general populace. Twitter’s democratization of culture has forced the service into wearing many hats in regards to how it serves the public sphere — from breaking news, to proselytization, to citizen advocacy, to (most importantly) being a fertile breeding ground for anything and everything our generation finds humorous and entertaining nowadays — and thus, it serves as the all-encompassing anchor of the millennial zeitgeist.

Thanks to the character limit of tweets, messages and jokes had to be poetically succinct to gain any traction — and leveling those constraints on creatives gave birth to a completely new approach to joke structure and humor. In came fleeting phases of memes and one-liners, all with shelf lives of no more than a few weeks. Andy Warhol’s notion of everyone having their 15 minutes of fame became an undeniable reality as people’s eyeballs shifted from HBO standup specials to their timeline as a source for their laughs — and in that process, unconventional stars were born too.


When a standup comedian is funny on Twitter, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise (people we conventionally find funny remaining funny on other mediums isn’t a terribly novel thought). But what has come as a surprise are the many amateur personalities that have used Twitter as an exclusive medium to cultivate their craft and comedic brand (despite their audiences only knowing them for crass usernames and crudely drawn cartoon profile pictures, among other things) — and those personalities are changing what it means to be a mainstream comedian nowadays.


Take Brandon Wardell. If you don’t know him for his semi-unintelligible tweets or how he looks as if someone brought an anime stock character to real life, you might (directly or indirectly) know him for the many memes he has created or popularized (does “Dicks out for Harambe” ring a bell to you?). His rise as a comedian couldn’t be more different than the veterans who came before him, either. Thanks to a small PR bump after being featured as an opener on a Bob Odenkirk stand up tour, Wardell amassed a following on Twitter for regularly publishing absurdist humor that touched at the (pretentious, vapid, materialistic, etc.) fundamentals of being a millennial. He performs on occasion in his current home of L.A., but his online presence still remains his bread and butter. Wardell told Rolling Stone in 2016  “Twitter is ... the purest form of expression that I have. There’s something super-visceral about Twitter. It’s just a lot of like brain vomit.”

And it’s that reason why Twitter comedy resonates so well with today’s population. Comedy used to be constrained by a set of concrete conventions regarding structure, content, delivery and the like — and to some extent, the legacy of those constraints still linger. But the Twitter age has deconstructed what it means to be “funny” — and with that, the craft of being a comedian as well. Comedy as an art form is still going through its early stages of transition thanks to the age of social media, and how we see personalities like Wardell (and others) flourish is yet to be clearly determined, but if there’s one thing that can be concretely drawn from these observations, it’s that humor acts as a common plane for a culture to find commonality in. If how we communicate with each other can fundamentally change, thanks to the internet or some untold medium yet to reveal itself, how we joke with each other will only follow suit — and in this case, in ways far more significant than anyone could have expected.