@midnight is a show on Comedy Central that combines the worst characteristics of two things I enjoy—standup comics and Twitter—in a way that with repeated exposure I’d be forced to swear off both. I watched one half of one episode, featuring the great Rory Scovel and, one of my favorite comics, Jon Dore, and I couldn’t finish. This post will briefly get at why.
Comedians brought me on Twitter. Patton Oswalt, specifically, “way back” in 2011 when I found on a blog his tweets about those wretched Toyota Highlander commercials with the girl-haired boy talking to the camera about the pressures he puts on his family to buy expensive things. Twitter is good for comedians the way a strictly enforced three-minute set is—it disallows lengthy joke setups and filler. Turns out Twitter’s also good for poets the way classic forms are. Compression. Distillation. How it came to be that Twitter’s made everyone into comedians and not poets is kind of why I’m working on this standup book.
Twitter, like Facebook, both inflates your peer group and makes it more intimate, and thus peer pressures are way harder to fight against there. So early on, I felt the pressure to be funny. (I understand this as a side-effect of my having followed chiefly comedians, but I see it in a lot of my friends’ tweets too.) Early on, I participated with relish in “hashtag games”—punny names and titles that are good for showing off one’s cleverness. The original hashtag game may be #PornMovieTitlesThatRipOffHollywoodBlockbusters. I played that game maybe 10 times in certain college dorm rooms. Puns are often clever but rarely funny. Also, because there are a finite number of good ones before they get obscure or just weak, there’s always an element of speed involved. It’s very important to be the first person to come up with Saving Ryan’s Privates, because it’s a matter only of time (i.e., not smarts, not a sense of humor) before someone comes up with Saving Ryan’s Privates. To the quicker go the spoils.
@midnight isn’t all hashtag games, but it primarily is. I recall also seeing some “What did this famous person tweet in response to [bit of news/tweet from other famous person]?” That was a multiple choice quiz. Comics were given two “funny” tweets and one actual tweet to pick from. It’s another way @midnight takes a gifted, funny person and makes them a tired idiot. Twitter’s good at making us all tired idiots, and often this happens during hashtag games. The incessant nature of quickly tweeting humorisms, hoping for retweets. People on Twitter are usually more interesting than a hashtag game.
And comedians always are. Comedians are skilled performers, with a kind of natural artifice most of us can’t achieve in front of a group. @midnight shows off none of this. It’s not a venue that taxes comics’ improv abilities. Sure, they might be thinking on the spot (and I stress might be: each comic has an iPad at his disposal and it wouldn’t at all be surprising if they were given the hashtag game in advance), but not toward any end, narrative or otherwise. Nothing’s created by a hashtag game. Things only are confirmed.
Compare any hashtag-game tweet to Oswalt’s linked to above. It’s enfeebling comedy, giving us the feel of a joke without any of its surprise or invention. When we non-comedians participate in it, it’s fun. We’re playing at being comedians for a while, enjoying one another’s witticisms. But when comedians themselves take part, something destructive goes on.
This isn’t a hoi polloi v. elite situation. I’m not arguing that comics are too professional, too skilled to be bothered with our plebian silliness. I think I’m arguing that understanding what a comedian can do that we can’t turns @midnight into a televised punishment—like an Iron Chef where every week the ingredients are the chefs’ own hair and clothes.