Comedians: Looking at the Future through Groucho Marx Glasses

DISCLAIMER: This presentation is currently incomplete. There are many more points I want to make based on the notes I already have, and connections I want to make a little clearer

For almost all careers, all the technical skill and field experience in the world aren't worth a thing unless you understand your audience. Writers like Fitzgerald and Steinbeck weren't considered great simply because they wrote pretty sentences. They captured something about the era they lived in, and it resonated with people. Just like good writing, good comedy requires not only understanding society, but presenting it to an audience in an unexpected and amusing way. Because of this, great comedians are regularly on the forefront of sociological movements, providing humorous insight through their own unique lens*. One of the biggest platforms for comedians in the market to broadcast their humor is Twitter, a social media giant that is consistently growing in popularity. Due to the interactive nature of Twitter and other social media sites, comedians are easily able to find success through niche markets, rather than trying to appeal to a broad audience.

*Check out the video below for comedian Louis CK's very crude, very funny take on technology: "Cell Phones and Flying"

For such a large player on the internet, Twitter is deceptively straightforward. Social Media Expert Joel Comm explains in his 2009 book Twitter Power, "At its simplest, Twitter is just a means to send short updates to people who want to receive them." Since its official launch in October 2006, this simple service has exploded in popularity, attracting everything from teenagers and young adults to small businesses and enormous corporations, all of which are eager for not only attention, but approval. According to Comm, most Twitter accounts are used for one of two purposes: a personal account used to check up on friends, celebrities, or local businesses , or and the public face of a company, ready to answer questions and put a positive, helpful spin on what the company is offering. However, comedians walk a strange line somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. It's the comic's job to self-promote and inform followers of upcoming events, but they also need to come off as real people to their audience, while also being entertaining. The process of figuring out just what brand you want to project can be difficult, but it's made much, much easier thanks to one word: feedback.


Feedback is what allows consumers to have more power than ever. According to Joel Comm, "This is the 'social' part of social media, and it means that publishing is now about participation. Someone who uses social media successfully doesn't just create content; he or she creates conversations." If used well, these conversations can be enriching for both the publisher, who can learn how to keep the public's interest, and the customer, who can get the most out of their content.

One of the most successful Twitter comedian stories comes from a man named Rob Delaney. As a younger comedian, Delaney had trouble making it into the big time. However, in the past few years, Delaney's audience has exploded to over 855,000 followers, an accomplishment which landed him an interview on Bullseye, a public radio show about what's good in culture. Before the interview, host Jesse Thorn describes Delaney as "The first entertainment superstar to be born specifically of social media." As a product of Twitter, he understands the medium completely. For Rob Delaney, Twitter is the simplest way to test our jokes without having to stand in front of a microphone, "I have this need for immediate feedback, either good or bad, it's important just to get some sort of sensation thrown back at you," he told Thorn. Even with the character limit, Delaney finds that he can use Twitter to slowly add to his usual routine, "I tweet probably about five different things, like, thematically, and then over time they coalesce into what could be a longer set or suite of jokes."

Unfortunately, while it's a necessary part of the field, feedback isn't always positive. When reacting to negative feedback, comedians have two options.

Option 1: Breadth
The comedian takes most feedback as necessary criticism, and dials back the joke, making it a little safer or a little more accessible. In the earlier days of comedy, success was only found by appealing to a broad audience. If the act didn't sell enough tickets to fill the venue, the venue lost money. Safer acts with easy jokes made more business sense, so creativity was stifled.

Option 2: Depth
The comedian only focuses on the reactions of a specific crowd. Because tweets cost nothing, they can be a great place to try out new, strange material. That lack of overhead means that forming even a small market can be beneficial for a humorist. In fact, many Twitter accounts are based on absurd niches of comedy, such as Kim KierkeGaardashian (@KimKierkegaard), who posts strange hybrid thoughts of a 19th century Danish philosopher and a 21st century vapid celebrity.

Or God (@TheTweetOfGod), a twitter account that sticks to sacrilege and absurdity for humor.

These examples may seem outlandish, but they fit in with a new theme of internet-based advertising and sales called Long Tail.

The old business model for most media was focused on breadth due to limited size and cost-benefit analysis. For example, since record stores could only carry a limited amount of CDs at a time, and each CD cost money to acquire, it makes sense that what would end up on the shelves would be something appealing to as many people as possible. The internet provides an alternative. By dealing in data, which is at this point virtually limitless, online retailers could tap into niche markets that weren't economically feasible before.

For music and books, there was Amazon.
For movies, there was Netflix.
For comedies, there was Twitter.

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris. "Wired 12.10: The Long Tail." Conde Nast Digital, Oct. 2004. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.

Comm, Joel. Twitter Power: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at a Time. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Cross, Mary. Bloggerati, Twitterati: How Blogs and Twitter are Transforming Popular Culture. Santa Barbara : ABC-CLIO, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Kling, Ben. "140 Characters Saved Are 140 Characters Earned." 140-characters-earned. Ben Kling. Tumblr, 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

Thorn, Jesse. "Rob Delaney, Nellie McKay and Jordan Ranks America" Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. 24 September 2013. Public Radio International. 30 September 2013 <>.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York City: Basic ; First Trade Paper Edition Edition, 2012. Print.