Ten years ago, you could be a comedian without a social media presence. Back in 2008, saying, “Oh, I’m not on Twitter,” or even, “What’s Twitter?” was commonplace. If you can believe it, there were comedians wary of putting their material on the internet for free or worried someone across the country would steal their jokes. But something has changed. While those who achieved celebrity status before the mid-2000s can stay off social media—your Larry Davids, your Bill Murrays—up-and-comers need those likes and follows to show the men with the money (it’s sadly, still, usually men) that they have a proven product.
Social media is a weird thing when it comes to comedy. It is usually cyclical; fans start following you after seeing you perform and more followers beget more followers and finally, at some point, having enough of them opens doors to more opportunities to perform. It all goes back, and I can’t believe I am saying this, to Dane Cook. Cook is commonly viewed as the pioneer of social media fan interaction. He was an early Myspace adopter and used it in 2005 to market his stand-up, which led his second album, Retaliation, to go double platinum. What people often forget in that story was that Cook had been performing in comedy clubs since the ‘90s. He had put in years of hard work before ever logging online. He already had something to sell and used the internet to market it. What I’m saying is, he was certainly not a new guy who rose through the ranks via social media.
The internet also became a place to show off your own comedy videos. Bo Burnham used YouTube to self-publish his funny songs in high school, leading to Comedy Central handing him a half-hour special his freshman year at NYU. Web series like Broad City and Diary of an Awkward Black Girl showed networks that funny women get views—which led to critically acclaimed television shows. Though media empires have shifted their focus towards video content—Mic, Condé Nast, and Vice all cut down jobs for writers and hired more video producers—the online video boom hasn’t worked for everyone. Vox and humor site Cracked both had to layoff video content creators after the pivot didn’t get them the profits they had hoped for.
Video content creators will always have a place on the internet even if it can’t be corporatized in the way media companies had dreamed. While YouTube continues to be a way for up-and-comers (notably musicians) to showcase their talents, a new type of content creator is rising from the trash heap that is Twitter: the viral humor writer. These writers don’t do sketches. They don’t upload stand-up clips. They aren’t always performers or even, sometimes, comedians. Their appeal lies within their ability to produce jokes and tell stories in epic #LongRead threads.
One incredible example is Megan Amram, who got her start on Twitter and now writes on NBC’s The Good Place. In 2010, she graduated college, moved to Los Angeles, and started posting jokes on Twitter. She wasn’t trying to get people to come to her live performances or watch her web series. She was just posting jokes and TV writing jobs followed.
Earlier this week, it was announced that humorist Jonny Sun is teaming up with Fox Family to write his first feature film, Paper Lanterns. When Sun joined Twitter in 2009, he was still an undergraduate studying engineering. With a doodle of an alien as his avatar and a pen name of Jomny Sun, the humorist didn’t even promote his actual name until after he published a book (which was released under his Twitter name Jomny.)
Twitter accounts based on a concept have been turned into TV shows before. Sh*t My Dad Says, an account run by Justin Halpern, was turned into a short-lived CBS show in 2010 starring William Shatner. Halpern was already a comedy writer before starting the Twitter account, and as of this writing, the handle hasn’t tweeted in over a year. Accounts like Sh*t My Dad Says feel different from the Twitter humorist of today. In the 2000s, we fell in love with concepts like that. Now we are falling in love with writers.
Sun and Amram are not in the top 50 most followed people on Twitter. The only comedians on that list are Jimmy Fallon, Kevin Hart, and Ellen Degeneres. But Sun and Amram do have massive fan bases that support the people behind the words. They are in a new class of writers like Darcie Wilder (aka @333333333433333) and K.T. Nelson (aka @KrangTNelson) whose successes have been tied to a legacy of 280-character remarks.
This trend is exciting because the next generation of comedy writers might never have to get on a stand-up stage or go to a prestigious writing program. They won’t need videos of their jokes or even a proper profile picture. This new class of writers can make a name for themselves.