On a recent Tuesday, Jen Statsky was negotiating a move across Manhattan with all the usual headaches. In the midst of it all she pulled out her iPhone and wrote to her 7,045 Twitter followers: “Moving to the West Village today. Can’t wait to be just like that character in Sex and the City — ‘Girl In Coffee Shop #2!!!”
Statsky is a writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and had planned her move during the show’s fall hiatus. With a week off from pitching jokes for the nightly monologue, she was free to funnel all funny thoughts onto Twitter — without which, by the way, she might not have her job.
“When I first submitted a packet to the show, I wasn’t using Twitter,” Statsky said. “I didn’t get it.”
She didn’t get the job, either. But months later Statsky fired up the Twitter account she had registered for but barely used. “It just got me in the practice of writing jokes every single day,” she said, “and being mindful of making them as punchy as possible.” By the time she submitted to Fallon again in 2011, Statsky was, by her own estimation, “a much better writer.”
She was hired, the capper to what many comedians would consider an aspirational Twitter tale.
As the service has gone from novel to necessary, performers and writers up and down the comedy food chain have taken to it. Though for most it’s simply another promotional tool letting followers know about a coming show or book release, many are making Twitter into a virtual workshop, whether they’re stand-ups testing bits and experimenting with improv or behind-the-scenes writers edging into the limelight.
If it seems as if there was a gap between the dawn of Twitter and comedians’ skilled use of it, that’s because the people who now employ it best were once loath to log on. “I avoided it for a long, long, time,” said Fran Gillespie, a writer and performer at Upright Citizens Brigade. “But I have a lot of downtime at rehearsals and auditions, and it’s an easy creative outlet.”
Gillespie’s tweets “take two disparate things and connect them,” she said. Case in point: “It is always in the last place you would look, so yeah, my Nuva Ring was in the dumbwaiter at the Field Museum.” (She often receives messages from relatives wondering if the account is truly hers.)
Another Upright Citizens Brigade member, Aaron Glaser, started out by getting too creative. “I thought I’d tweet everything from a character: a 600-pound billionaire,” Glaser said. But writing about “eating ribs in my hot tub with Burt Reynolds” quickly grew boring.
Glaser got a new handle, retooled his approach, and began filing the sort of one-liners that punctuate his stand-up. “If the Beatles were founded today,” went one Tweet, “Ringo would be a laptop.”
He developed a system: Tap out a joke on Twitter, then monitor the reaction.
If followers react with retweets, “favorites,” or “likes” on Facebook, to which his Twitter feed is linked, Glaser will drop the line into his stand-up material. Such was the case with the Ringo joke, which killed in performance after earning online kudos, and now it’s part of Glaser’s regular set. “Generally if it works on Twitter, it works onstage,” he said.
Mike DiCenzo, another Fallon writer, “succumbed to peer pressure” as most of the Fallon staff signed on to Twitter and now tweets jokes that don’t work as monologue fodder. (In its use of social media on the air and behind the scenes, the show is considered a leader among late-night programs.) Then he pressed a friend into tweeting: Seth Reiss, head writer of The Onion. But Reiss had a reservation. “I thought I’d be annoying over Twitter,” he said. “So I didn’t want to join as myself.”
He hatched a different and extremely specific plan: something about the idea of Reiss tweeting as Matt Albie, the character played by Matthew Perry on the short-lived NBC show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, cracked up Reiss and DiCenzo.
So Reiss dived in, breathing life back into characters and their fictional problems from a series that was scrapped four years ago. His first tweet was setup: “Live from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it’s Friday night in Hollywood.” The next thousand were punch lines.
The account has 3,580 followers. Not bad for a character who existed for just 22 hours — but nothing compared with the followings of Justin and Eric Stangel, head writers of Late Show With David Letterman. Though they’ve never had an on-camera job, the Stangel brothers have more than 100,000 Twitter followers between them.
Their major Twitter moment came when the brothers live-tweeted Charlie Sheen’s stage show from Radio City. The Stangels’ dispatches on Sheen’s wild onstage antics — “We went there prepared to write jokes and didn’t need to; it was all true,” Eric said — received so much attention that Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s brother, messaged Justin, asking if what they were writing was true. “He said his mother was really worried,” Justin said. “That freaked me out.”
The Stangels’ followers delight in the pair’s interactions with celebrities. When they’re not pounding out Late Show jokes, they play a game called Guess What Mark Consuelos Had For Lunch or exchange Seder-theme volleys with Henry Winkler. “Sometimes it’s a way to break your writer’s block,” Eric said, “and sometimes you’re just waiting for your kid to fall asleep.”
But Twitter is also a place for constant comedic progress, as evidenced by the fact that Lisa Cohen, a founder of the Twitter joke aggregator WitStream.com, now receives sets pitched by Twitter comics. “People come to us and say, ‘Hey, can you check out my stuff?’” Cohen said. “For some of them, sure, the late-night job is the holy grail. But this is its own, real art form.”