Short and tweet: Comedians are getting in on the Twitter act

Comedians are getting in on the Twitter act as the networking site is perfect for road-testing one-liners and even putting on stand-up gigs
Click to follow

It's arguable that the purpose of Twitter is, in 140 characters or fewer, to inform you best as to who in the world has just had a cup of tea. However, out of the minutiae of life comes comedy, and it was perhaps inevitable that Twitter, attracting an estimated six million unique monthly users, has been readily adopted by the comedy community.

Stephen Fry, with 546,661 followers to date, has become a recognised figurehead for comedian tweeters across the globe. Meanwhile, other UK-based comedy Twitterati include the bad boys of British comedy Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, Carrs Jimmy and Alan, the Peep Show boys David Mitchell and Robert Webb and even ex-Python John Cleese is on there "Twittering with all the other twats" as he puts it on YouTube.

Visiting London last week, American comedian Lewis Black raged about Twitter to his audience. "Facebook, MySpace. OK. But that's as far as it should go. If you are writing about doing something, you are not doing it, are you? Are you really that interested in your life?" Within less than a week of these sobering words, however, Twitter Comedy, a comedy night hosted on the site, had had its inaugural outing with some interesting results that could shape future jokes, if not the future of comedy itself.

The brainchild of comedian Tiernan Douieb, a graduate of the University of Kent's comedy course and promoter of popular London comedy night Fat Tuesday, the idea for Twitter Comedy came to him when he complained on the site about a poorly attended live gig and one of his followers suggested doing a gig online. Douieb took little convincing, having already decided that wit lay at the heart of Twitter.

"Twitter is very much designed to cater for comedians and comedy writers. It's helped me to write quite a lot of new material in a short space of time as it feels as though there is some extra pressure to write funny tweets when a large number of people are following you. It's great to test them out online and get instant gratification for one that works. More often than not, these can then be used on the circuit."

Sarah Millican, last year's if.comedy newcomer award winner in Edinburgh, agrees that it's not just a marketing tool. "I like to put up something that has narked me or made me laugh and see what response it gets. For example I posted 'Have you ever stroked a dog 'til you see the whites of its eyes? I love things too much.' I wondered if it was just me but when I got a few people writing back saying that they knew what I meant I knew it had legs. I turned it into something about women being too forceful during sex, squeezing things a little too hard. I tried it last week and it got a really big response. That's not to say that Twitter ultimately defines what's funny and what's not, but it gives more of an insight into an idea."

Road-testing is one thing but as the Twitter Comedy gig itself underlined, if you are going to post actual gags on the site one-liners have a natural advantage, what with brevity being the soul of wit and wit the heart of Twitter. Brevity and a degree of touch-typing dexterity. Unfortunately for Twitter Comedy's first act, Matt Kirshen, tweeting from his phone while waiting to go on at an actual live gig, these lessons went unheeded. Kirshen gamely tried to plough on through a series of stories, most containing no punchline. This required some patience given his overestimate of the speed he could type. Luckily for Kirshen there is a facility on Twitter called #gigreport where comedians commiserate and congratulate respectively.

The gig also proved that some obstacles to comedy remain the same in both the real and virtual worlds: inevitably there were Twithecklers. They were largely assuaged by the one-line gags of the next act Rob Heeney, tweeting from the Isle of Man: "Apparently 85 per cent of British men can't perform even the simplest of DIY tasks and need to hire a handyman. According to a Pole."

As if to make an anti-comedy stance for the internet age, rising star Carl Donnelly pulled a fast one by sending the link to a recording of his act on YouTube. Musical comedian Mitch Benn rescued the gig again with his song about Twitter set to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", each line speaking to the audience in their own language: "I'm just a dull boy no one retweets me/HE IS JUST A DULL BOY WITH A SMALL FOLLOWING LET'S BLOCK HIM AND STAMP ON HIS BLACKBERRY"

The retweeting (RT) referred to here is the ultimate sign that something is going down well. So both Mitch Benn and the next act, the one-liner merchant Gary Delaney enjoyed a lot of this, even as their act was going on. Delaney fired off so many gags that he used up his tweet allowance and had to switch to another profile to help maintain his rate of gags that included "I think dolphins invented cancer just to have people to swim with".

Even though the medium wasn’t quite right for his message, storyteller Terry Saunders enjoyed an interrupted Twitter stream to set out his up and down tale of his poorly testicle and the uncomfortable medical situations that presented with both a male and female doctor. If.comedy award-nominated Sketch combo Pappy’s Fun Club had a seemingly impossible task to get over four distinct personalities in one tweet but the ensemble voice just about survived with some nice one-liners to boot: "We even wrote a sketch about Twitter. Unfortunately the cast is too big. It's got 140 characters in it." Finally, headliner Mark Watson, who may yet incorporate Twitter into his 24 hour show in Edinburgh this year, got the balance right with pithy gags like: "Mission Impossible III was a bit lacking in suspense I thought.Well, he's managed two. He'll probably crack this one."

From a reviewers point if view it was nice not to need to take notes but the proceedings sapped the powers of concentration somewhat and the absence of sound and real time pace made the texture of the event dippable rather than engrossing. There was, however, an undeniable appetite for more.

With Twitter followers growing much faster than Facebook friends, Twitter Comedy could be a boost to the building of a comedians fan base on the site and, depending on the spread, it might not be that long before someone can pull off a secret, if modest, "MySpace" style gig as Russell Brand has done, especially as in some cases comics are deciding that a gag is a "Twitter-only" product, thereby side-stepping the sensitive issue of having your material in print and, to some extent, of joke-stealing.

Most importantly will it improve the quality of their gags? Carole Leifer, a writer on Seinfeld said that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would let an idea for an episode stand or fall depending on whether a one line summary of the idea was funny or not. Twitter provides a similarly rigorous vetting process for stand up and one that can "focus group" it rather than rely on instinct alone.

Twitter jokes

Tiernan Douieb: "I shouldn't really try to do political gags. I only recently realised that 'Trotsky' wasn't a Russian word for a small pig."

Gary Delaney: "The BNP would have got many more votes, but when their supporters saw a cross on the ballot paper they set fire to it.'

Jimmy Carr: "Just watching 16 new housemates going into Big Brother. It's like watching the first day at a special needs school."

Michael McIntyre: "Why can't pigs catch man flu? Hundreds of swine lying around pigsties with slightly runny snouts oinking 'I'm dying.'"

Sarah Silverman: "I'm so shitty with Greek mythology. What was Herpes the god of again?"

Gary Delaney: "Just seen a picture of Freud's mum. She's hot!"

Matt Kirshen: "So I was in a limbo competition and the music started. 'How low can you go?' I said I once stole a dialysis machine."

Rob Heeney: "My mum only sees the positive in people ... which ultimately cost her job as an HIV tester."

Rob Heeney: "I'm a bit thick. I used to think a mongoose was a swan with special needs ... I thought it had Eider-down syndrome."

Gary Delaney: "I'm 20 hours into my sponsored semaphore marathon; unfortunately I'm starting to flag quite badly."

Dylan Moran: "Only 98 characters left, oh what a shame."

Mark Watson: "I didn't bother going to 'Monsters v Aliens' because someone spoiled the result for me."

Sarah Silverman: "I'm so shitty with Greek mythology. What was Herpes the god of again?"

John Cleese: "Football. In the UK that means a game played mostly by people from elsewhere, but at least it's played with the feet."

Nick Frost: "Hate rats, they're like flightless pigeons."

Peter Serafinowicz: "You never see a thin Santa, or a fat Dracula."