How Twitter Is Transforming the One-Line Joke

A tight group of 140-character comedians finds a large community that can relate.

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A composite of one-line jokes from Twitter users that have seen a surge in followers thanks to their brand of 140-character humor.

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So what makes a tweet particularly funny? For the most part, the one-line joke has been on the wane—some of its greatest practitioners like Rodney Dangerfield and Groucho Marx have been replaced by comedians who have adopted a narrative approach to comedy, one with interconnected storylines that rely little on punchlines or easy laughs. While there have been a few one-liner specialists who have emerged in the last decade—the late Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin come to mind—the form is viewed by many as slapstick and amateurish, a product in search of cheap laughs.

Twitter, by virtue of its strict character limits, has provided a platform for the resurgence of the one-line joke, and its most fervent enthusiasts have attempted to expand its reach and scope, packing as much meaning into as few words as possible. "There are things that fly on Twitter that would not fly on stage in a comedy act, and vice versa," says Sinkwich, who tweets under the handle @YUCKYBOT. "There are a lot of things that someone might say on stage that would get lost in translation on Twitter. I think there's a lot of different ways you can be funny. Sometimes it's very astute observational humor people can relate to, and other times, it is very absurd."

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Many of Sinkwich's most successful tweets are often relatable, hinging on the observation of a daily annoyance that is so common and banal that it remains unnoticed until he plucks it out and succinctly pinpoints the absurdity of it. "I had a tweet that said, 'My roommate doesn't know it, but we're engaged in a war over where to put the bathroom rug.' Whereas that might not be funny said out loud or in a comedy venue, people can relate to that. People are like, 'Whoa, it's funny because those are just like tiny snippets of our lives that get captured so perfectly and in a little 140-character write-up.'"

Other tweets draw humor from the sudden twist or turn of phrase, leading the reader to believe they're going one way and then suddenly veering in the opposite direction. Often the beginning of this kind of tweet relies on a cliche before then turning that cliche on its head. "Sometimes mommies and daddies stop loving each other. But they still love you," one of Sinkwich's tweets begins before before falling down a darker hole: "Sometimes. When they're not consumed with filling the void."

Of course self-deprecation also plays its part. Sometimes the funniest tweets are the ones in which the user casts himself in the most pathetic light. "I wouldn't say I'm lonely," tweeted Greg Schindler, "but sometimes I tap the brakes just to make my seatbelt hug me tighter."

Those who engage in this near-constant battle to make us snicker as we comb through our Twitter feed are often obsessed with the metrics behind their jokes. Rodriguez recalls instances in which she would constantly refresh her screen and delete tweets that didn't generate a sufficient number of retweets or favorites. Many have become addicted to the instant high that comes when a tweet takes off and goes viral, and they have to resist the urge to just launch out rapid-fire jokes to see what sticks.

"It just doesn't seem like there's a formula for it," says Will Phillips, a comedian who lives in Los Angeles. "Some of the more popular ones that get retweeted a lot, those are the ones I just didn't expect to take off at all, but for some reason they resonate. And of course you want that again, but I think the more you try for it, the more you back yourself into a corner and the material starts to suffer a little bit the more you try."

The Twitter humor community has become a closely-knit one over time, with the same kind of support network you'll see among standup comedians. For many, the big break came when a more popular Twitter user began retweeting their material, and there's an inherent reciprocity in how they promote each other's work.

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"There were a lot of people in the beginning who kind of helped me out and supported me and got my name out there," says Sinkwich. "The thing is that Twitter can be very lopsided. It's unlike a lot of other websites in that you don't need to be mutually following someone else. You can have thousands of people following you and have no idea who they are. And for someone who's just starting, that can be a little intimidating. You don't really know how to get your name out there. For me it was important to promote and interact with those people who I found funny, and after a while they started following me back as well. I think interaction is a huge part of it."