In case you missed it, Stephen Colbert got into a bit of trouble on Twitter this past week due to a tweet that went out over a Comedy Central controlled Twitter account for his show. Things got very ugly very quickly, including calls for his job and the hashtag #CancelCorbert.
Let me start by saying I am not here to defend the tweet. I think we can all agree it crossed a line, at least for Twitter (some argue it was acceptable in context during the show; having not seen it, I can’t take a stand either way). That having been said, I do think there is something to be said for a wider context that is being ignored, one that has value and validity beyond the scope of a single show: the nature of comedy itself.
I’ve been writing comedy in one medium or another for almost twenty years now, and I’ve always kept two rules in mind. The first is a joke that goes all the way back to vaudeville: “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Everyone thinks being funny is easy right up until they try it. Even telling a joke someone else came up with takes timing, skill, and panache; being original and funny is exponentially harder. The second rule is one I learned back in college: the more offensive the joke is, the funnier it needs to be. Let’s not kid ourselves, there’s hardly anything in this world that isn’t offensive that is laugh out loud funny. Hitting the balance between “bust a gut” and “bust you in the mouth” is difficult, and it’s easy to miss the mark.
There are other complicating factors as well. Comedy is a moving target for a lot of reasons. One of them is that societal mores are always in flux. What was hilarious ten years ago is kind of uncomfortable today and will be outright taboo next week. The same thing happens in reverse. What’s more, comedy often plays a role in that social change, pushing boundaries, creating safer spaces in which we can talk openly about things that are forbidden in “polite” conversation. The down side of that is that it becomes easy to step on toes, go too far, and yes, even cross a line.
Another complicating factor is that, like it or not, comedy IS contextual. If you read a transcript of almost any performance by Bill Cosby, you might chuckle, or you might just say “I don’t see what’s so funny.” But when you watch him in action, it’s a whole different story. Pitch, tone, pacing, facial expressions, everything he does goes into his comedy. My father used to say that Chevy Chase could make him laugh just by walking into a room. Truth is he can do the same thing for me, but that doesn’t translate to Twitter.
Finally, sometimes you’re just under the gun and a bad joke gets through. It’s easy to sit back and play armchair comedian, complaining how “he should never have said that.” We’ve all done it. But how easy is it to write a half-hour of humor five nights a week? Even with a writing team, it gets exhausting. I used to do 1,000 words of humor a week, and I only lasted a couple of years with breaks every few months. The Colbert Report has been running for almost ten years, with over 1,300 episodes. That’s almost 500 hours of jokes. Is it remotely possible that a bad one might slip through now and then?
Once again, I’m not saying that nobody should be offended. It was offensive, and deliberately so. It was inappropriate for the medium, and hopefully will not be repeated. But calls to fire Colbert or cancel the show are misguided at best and opportunistic grandstanding at worst. There are better things to rage against.
Last semester I had the good fortune to take a class on Digital Rhetoric and New Media. It was a fascinating class, and it offered me the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of new concepts, particularly among them the idea of media specific analysis. To some degree most of us have had some exposure to this, as we don’t analyze movies quite the same way we do books, but we went into it in much greater depth and detail in the class, as well as trying our hands at doing digital art projects.
Coming out of that class, one of the concepts I was introduced to was the idea of “twitter novels” or “twitter stories”. The idea is somewhat flexible (as social media seems to be), but one version of it is taking an existing work and adapting it for Twitter. I was inspired by the idea and decided to try my hand at it. I selected as my source the essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read, working off the 50th anniversary edition published by the Foundation for Economic Education.
The experience was interesting, to say the least. First I went through the entire essay, trying to break it down into individual tweet-size pieces. This wasn’t as simple as just writing it out 140 characters at a time, because I wanted to accomplish several things with each tweet: I wanted them to seem “real”, I wanted them to be interesting in themselves, and I wanted them to be re-tweetable. Part of making them seem “real” was adjusting the voice of the essay, which is very formal, and making it less so. While I didn’t succeed everywhere, I do think I managed to make it more casual overall. One of the things I discovered in this process is that I am not very comfortable with Twitter; it was only just before I moved into the launch phase that I realized I hadn’t really made use of hash tags, and I had to go back through and find places they naturally fit. I did manage to incorporate bits and pieces of the web here and there, so I feel pretty good about that.
Actually scheduling the project was more of a challenge. Considering the work totaled over 100 tweets, I obviously wasn’t going to be sending them all manually. I had originally planned to send them in half-hour increments (give or take), and after talking with a coworker who is more versed in the use of social media than I am I decided to use Tweetdeck. Now, unless I am missing something, Tweetdeck could be a lot more user-friendly. My original schedule would have stretched out for at least a week (I only intend to have tweets go out between 10 am and 4 pm so I can monitor them for issues), and I had to adjust the schedule. Even being able to keep track of what I had already scheduled was a hassle, as Tweetdeck kept shuffling my pre-scheduled tweets out of chronological order, which does not fill me with confidence. When I tried to reschedule some, it looked like the program has just duplicated rather than rescheduling the tweets. Finally I tried to clear them all out, and upon refreshing things looked fine. Then I deleted that whole column, set it up again, and a whole set of tweets showed up again!
Once I finally got past those difficulties, I started over. I put all my tweets in a spreadsheet and set up a schedule there. I then copied them over and scheduled them rigorously according to the timetable I had established. At the time of writing this they sit queued up, waiting to launch. Over the next few days I’ll see how well the process turned out.
For those who are interested in trying a project like this, here is my advice:
1. Write your tweets in advance. This will give you time to think about what you want to say, make adjustments as needed, and have a cohesive story to present. Don’t think of Twitter (or any other social media platform) as your creative medium; it is your presentation medium. George Lucas doesn’t write the script as he’s filming, neither should you.
2. Think about the medium you are using. What makes it distinctive and unique? Why are you using this medium to tell your story instead of another? In particular familiarize yourself with the conventions of the medium. That’s not to say you can’t break convention (many artists have done so quite successfully), but do it deliberately.
3. Plan, plan, plan. It’s not just the writing, it’s all the tools you will use. If I was more familiar with the ins and outs of Tweetdeck, Bit.ly, and Twitter in general, I would have had an easier time, but just knowing Word and Excel and having a good vision for the shape of the project (I spent weeks working it out in my head) saved me when I hit roadblocks.
4. Have fun with it! In the end this is still an experimental medium, which means there are few if any rules, and this is the chance to do something truly new and innovative.
If you’d like to see my experiment in Twitter writing, it runs this week starting Jan. 7, 10 AM EST at @IPencil2013. If you have your own digital works, please share them in the comments below!