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Twitter courted comedians, then the opposition

How jokes became ammo during the social media platform’s shift from distraction to political warzone

Ross Miller/Polygon

How do you make a dead baby float?
You take your foot off its head.

An abrasive, frowned-upon shtick of the late 1960s and early ’70s, dead-baby jokes returned and proliferated online in 2010, with a new generation of comedians and comedy aficionados reinvigorating the shock humor on social media platforms. Some of Twitter’s earliest users were all over the dead-baby joke resurgence. Upon the advent of Facebook Groups, thousands of people joined dead-baby joke communities. Redditors launched /r/deadbabyjokes in the same year.

That was eight years ago, and while most people have moved on from dunking on deceased infants, social media’s role in comedy, and attempts to shock within a character limit, is still very much alive. The difference is that today’s jokes — or yesterday’s, dug up from a dusty publishing history — have been eroded by retweets. Stripped of context, they’re served and re-served to a volatile, polarized audience. Instead of playing horrors for laughs, a sick joke about dead babies can look like a stray thought about dead babies.

In the last month, comedians, writers and other longtime Twitter users, many of whom gained notoriety for speaking out against President Donald Trump, have faced intense scrutiny and backlash over jokes. Far-right voices have recently sparked outrage, warping the sentiment of the #MeToo campaign and other progressive conversations to turn comedians’ onetime jokes into skeletons in their closets. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired by Disney for old jokes about pedophilia, which Ted Cruz later implied were somehow proof of actual crimes; Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon issued an apology for a decade-old video that included a pedophilia joke. They were not the first to face punishment for their ancient internet comedy, and they won’t the be last.

Once upon a time, Twitter was a diversion. But it radically changed over the past decade. Twitter means everything; handles are identities. We’re starting to delete our digital footprint en masse as preventative action for a digital future that we don’t know, but ultimately scares us.

Comedians are feeling antsy, and recent events pose an implicit cultural question: Is there room to be funny on Twitter in 2018?

Rob Delaney arrives at screening of Catastrophe season 2 in West Hollywood in April 2016
Rob Delaney
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Twitter was different

In the mid-2000s, when Twitter and YouTube were just getting off the ground, comedians took to the social platforms to promote themselves, test new material and attract new audiences. Twitter helped comedian Rob Delaney land a successful career; stand-up comic Bo Burnham, at the age of 16, used short sketches and songs on YouTube to find an audience he couldn’t otherwise get. The internet democratized comedy and helped point to what a large, responsive audience was interested in hearing about at that moment.

Delaney saw Twitter not as a positive communication tool, but as a platform that people could dick around on. “Because of the way I chose to use it and focus on it, it did improve my life as it led to other writing opportunities that paid money and opened doors to me,” he told Fast Company in 2013.

Around the time Delaney and many of his comedy colleagues were tweeting one-liners, Twitter became a political battleground where any and all opinions were being voiced. In 2008, President Barack Obama embraced Twitter, and the Tea Party, a grassroots movement within the Republican Party designed to aggressively counter Obama’s policies, followed. That year, the platform grew by more than 750 percent, according to Mashable. More eyes on a platform meant a more democratized space where everyone was heard — or thought they should be.

Running parallel to the political conversations were comedians who hoped to grow their audience by dropping the right joke at the right time. Lesser-known personalities latched onto the same formula. As more people joined, the cult of retweets turned every feed into an amateur stand-up act. Parody accounts started popping up, viral jokes blew up, and professional and amateur comedians were sending tweets every hour, hoping to attract attention.

In a 2013 interview, Megan Amram, an Emmy-nominated comedian who also used Twitter to build her career, said she didn’t have the desire to participate in the type of offensive comedy that dominated Twitter in that competitive moment. “I try to stay away from offensive things, and when I do them, I usually delete them,” Amram said. “Mostly because I don’t have the energy to defend them.”

Ironic offensiveness, a style that comedians Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. practiced in their acts, was an area of comedy that platforms like Twitter and YouTube attracted.

The humor predated social media; one could find gasp-worthy jokes on shock-cult sites like Rotten.com, 4chan’s /b/ or even predecessors to video hubs, like eBaum’s World and Newgrounds. Twitter and YouTube weren’t fringe platforms: Twitter had more than 50 million active users in 2010, while YouTube boasted 550 million monthly unique users in 2011. These were active communities, full of people looking to contribute their art to an online space and gain some notoriety in the process.

Throwing comedy online for anyone to discover and consume worked for people like Amram and Delaney. It worked for comedians like Anthony Jeselnik, who used Twitter as a way to try out his brand of ironic offensive comedy. It worked for comedians and writers like Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland, and comedy troupes like The Lonely Island.

It didn’t work as well for Timmy Williams.

A past of being funny online

Williams achieved what most comedians dream about. After going to school in New York, and producing videos for anyone who would watch them, he got a show on IFC with his sketch group, The Whitest Kids U’ Know.

The Whitest Kids U’ Know ran on IFC from 2007 through 2011, and was a milestone in Williams’ career. He still cherishes the experience to this day — he got to make a TV show. After the series ended, however, Williams went through a messy divorce and decided to move back home to Watertown, South Dakota. A single father, Williams looked for jobs outside the entertainment world, and eventually settled into a career as a substitute teacher. He loved the job, Williams told Polygon, but it ended because of his comedic past.

“I never thought it would become more of problem than having to explain my sketch videos on YouTube every once in a while,” Williams says.

That was until one kid stumbled upon a video that featured Williams dancing in his underwear. Things spiraled from there: Parents discovered the video, and demanded that Williams be fired for his previous work. Williams describes the sketch as pretty inoffensive, but that didn’t matter. A few people thought the material was inappropriate enough to warrant his firing, and the assistant superintendent agreed.

“He said, ‘Well, you know how this town is,’” Williams tells Polygon. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I know how this town is,’” and he cuts me off to say, ‘You know how this town is.’ That was his explanation.”

Williams understands firsthand what it’s like to lose a job over an action in the past, even if his video is nowhere near as provocative as Gunn’s jokes or Harmon’s sketch. Williams says that social media has become increasingly weird for comedians, adding that he’s happy The Whitest Guys U’ Know existed before internet culture changed.

“Those early 2000s were great for weird comedy,” Williams says. “I have to wonder: If we put stuff online again, which we want to do, what’s the response going to be? We’re not going to be that different.”

a photo illustration of a thumbprint displayed on a mobile phone as the logo for the Twitter social media network is projected onto a screen Leon Neal/Getty Images

Twitter’s new politicized age

The internet changed forever in late 2014. As The Outline founder Joshua Topolsky observed:

Cracks in Twitter’s façade had been showing already. Changes to the product made it hard to follow conversations or narratives. A lack of rigor in verifying reliable sources made information suspect or confusing. More troubling was the growing wave of harassment and abuse that users of the service were dealing with—a quagmire epitomized by the roving flocks of hateful, misogynistic, and well-organized “Gamergate” communities that flooded people’s feeds with hate speech and threats. The company seemed to be wholly unprepared to handle mob violence, with few tools at its disposal to moderate or quell uprisings. Even its beloved celebrity users couldn’t be protected.

By the end of 2014, the politicized social media environment reflected a tribal atmosphere. Twitter and YouTube allowed anonymous people to turn online spaces into campgrounds for building armies of like-minded people who could attack the other side. Anything and everything became ammo.

Comedian Glen Tickle originally used Twitter as a writing exercise to tighten up his jokes. In the years after its founding, Tickle tells Polygon, Twitter didn’t feel like a public platform because so many people were new to it. Everyone was trying to figure out how to use Twitter, so jokes that were typed out didn’t feel like they might be seen by millions of people.

“If I tweeted something, it was basically like, ‘What’s the easiest way to send a joke to my 30 friends without having to tell them individually?’” Tickle says. Now people are listening, and if a joke doesn’t land, the audience reaction can be intense.

“I can think of a specific joke that I’ve said out loud to friends in college, and I just hope they don’t remember that I ever said that terrible thing,” Tickle says. “If you’re 20, and you’re a privileged white guy in college, you may think something’s funny at the time. Then, as you learn more about the world, you realize what a mistake you made. But having one person in the bar hear your joke is different than having it online forever.”

Tickle points to a highly politicized internet as a problem for comedians. Both Gunn and Harmon, for example, were vocal critics of President Trump, and infuriated a section of Twitter that includes far-right bloggers like Mike Cernovich. Gunn, in particular, tweeted about Trump’s politics constantly, and people weren’t happy with his opinions. Tickle says that trying to cope with the current political environment on Twitter and make jokes at the same time has become increasingly difficult.

“Twitter is just so confrontational right now, and comedians feel that,” Tickle says. “The problem is, the world’s on fire, so I don’t always feel like making jokes. A common thing comedians get on Twitter now is: Anytime we post something political, people tell us to ‘stick to comedy.’ I would love to, but there are problems right now that need to be addressed. I would love to get back to just tweeting about jokes about my daughter, but the world is what it is, and I’m not going to not say anything about it.

“Twitter can just be a negative feedback loop now.”

Trevor Noah presenting an award at the Sports Illustrated 2017 Sportsperson of the Year Show Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

When search history became ammunition

On March 31, 2015, one day after he was named Jon Stewart’s successor on The Daily Show, comedian Trevor Noah found himself at the center of a controversy. Internet sleuths had discovered a series of old jokes that critics described as anti-Semitic and racist. In a statement, Noah referred to the offhand quips as jokes that didn’t land.

“It’s crazy that an entire person can be reduced to a few cherry-picked tweets,” comedian Laurie Kilmartin told Fusion at the time. “I think in the early days, comics treated Twitter like an open mic, but clearly it’s not. I worry that I’m gonna die after a lame or poorly worded tweet and then that will be my epitaph.”

“Twitter is terrifying,” Aamer Rahman added in Fusion’s story. “I think there’s more tweets that I haven’t sent than I’ve sent. Because once a tweet is out there, and anyone misinterprets or is offended by it, the only viable course for you then is to apologize immediately — no one cares about what you meant, or what your intentions were. So it is kind of scary.”

Aparna Nancherla posed a question in the report that remains relevant today: “What exactly do the Internet-termed ‘outrage’ crowd want in terms of concrete goals?”

The “internet outrage crowd” doesn’t refer to a single faction of Twitter, though after 2014, people began organizing under hashtags and operating as a spontaneous group directing ire toward a specific target. The GamerGate movement is one of the more infamous “crowds,” and its strength came from the discovery that if a reactionary, loud group was aggressive and hostile enough to make it appear as if it were the majority, people or companies would give in. When GamerGate took issue with a critique by writer Leigh Alexander in 2014, the backlash convinced Intel to remove its ads from Gamasutra, the website that had published it. Individuals have summoned the same power over the years; YouTube creators like Sargon of Akkad and MundaneMatt went on the attack, building communities around their rhetoric, dog-whistling their ideologies to tribalistic fans.

Four years later, those tactics are still being used. Cernovich and YouTube conspiracists like Alex Jones have built on those strategies and applied them to their war on journalists who criticize their work, the so-called Hollywood elite and people on the political left. They don’t care for truth so much as trying to paint everyone as evil in some way — and because they don’t care about truth, none of their own past actions can affect their careers. Their careers are built on the internet fanaticism they’ve riled up.

Los Angeles Global Premiere For Marvel Studios’ ‘Ant-Man And The Wasp’
James Gunn at the premiere of Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

The Comedy Twitter we knew might be gone

James Gunn, Michael Ian Black, Dan Harmon, Sarah Silverman and Anthony Jeselnik are just a few comedians who have come onto Cernovich’s radar in recent weeks for decade-old tweets.

The campaign started with Gunn. Cernovich aggressively tweeted out the writer-director’s old jokes, retweeting them to followers who voiced their thoughts on them. It became impossible to ignore. Gunn responded to Cernovich’s tweets through his own statement on Twitter, acknowledging that the jokes were in poor taste and saying that he’s grown in the decade since.

“Many people who have followed my career know when I started, I viewed myself as a provocateur, making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo,” Gunn said. “As I have discussed publicly many times, as I’ve developed as a person, so has my work and my humor. It’s not to say I’m better, but I am very, very different than I was a few years ago; today I try to root my work in love and connection and less in anger. My days saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction are over.

“In the past, I have apologized for humor of mine that hurt people. I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies.”

After Walt Disney Company chairman Alan Horn called the tweets indefensible, Gunn was officially fired from his duties as a Marvel Studios director. The decision to remove Gunn over tasteless tweets echoed Hollywood’s reckoning with sexual harassment, violence and mistreatment against women in and out of the industry, and a newfound zero-tolerance approach to anything that could be seen as offensive or unjust behavior. Disney took action against an employee, as is the company’s right, but the far-right provocateurs who resurfaced Gunn’s tweets saw his firing as a win. So they continued.

Almost immediately after Gunn’s dismissal, Community and Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon came under fire for a Dexter spoof from his early sketch days at Channel 101, the DIY comedy festival that launched some of the most popular comedians working today, including Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland and The Lonely Island. The video was shared through sites like BitChute, an alternative video platform mostly used by far-right media types, and 4chan. Adult Swim stood by Harmon; a representative for the network issued a statement arguing that while the sketch was in poor taste, Harmon has grown since then. Harmon echoed those sentiments in his own statement.

”In 2009, I made a ‘pilot’ which strove to parody the series Dexter and only succeeded in offending,” Harmon said in a statement to Polygon earlier this month. “I quickly realized the content was way too distasteful and took the video down immediately. Nobody should ever have to see what you saw and for that, I sincerely apologize.”

People are taking note. Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson recently took proactive action on his own Twitter account, citing recent events as cause.

“I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted anything that bad,” Johnson tweeted. “But it’s nine years of stuff written largely off the cuff as ephemera, if trolls scrutinizing it for ammunition is the new normal, this seems like a ‘why not?’ move.”

P.J. Holden, a comic book artist, also spoke out about deleting tweets. Holden expressed his sympathy with the current situation, admitting he couldn’t fathom what he may have tweeted a decade ago.

“I use some thing ... tweet delete … or somesuch to delete old tweets, but it only delete stuff within some nebulous tweet count of 3200, and I have 64ks worth,” Holden tweeted. “I think I’m mostly inoffensiveness, but god knows what idiotic thing I thought would be funny to tweet at at 3am in 2009.”

Sarah Silverman, a comedian known for her offensive jokes and controversial comedy, is being forced to defend herself against far-right bloggers like Cernovich who are calling her a pedophile.

“Some very odd people R saying I’m a pedo, re: a joke from a time not that long ago when hard absurd jokes by comedians were acknowledged for what they were — jokes — not a disingenuous national threat to people fake-clutching their pearls (whilst ranting the country’s too PC),” Silverman tweeted.

Demi Adejuyigbe, a comedian and television writer who gained a big audience because of his hilarious music videos, tells Polygon he wasn’t surprised to learn that comedians were starting to look at their own pasts on the internet in the wake of what happened to Gunn.

“I know a few years back, I just decided to wipe my Twitter of everything I’d written before a certain point in time, without even looking at what was getting wiped,” Adejuyigbe says. “Not even for being offensive, just for being embarrassing. There’s a near-universal experience amongst dudes who grew up with the internet of us realizing our embarrassing or performatively-offensive pasts are written in ink now — which doesn’t totally line up with James Gunn, since he was like 40 when those tweets were made, but they did still harken me back to a time where the only jokes people even thought were worth making were jokes whose whole punchline was ‘you can’t say that.’

“It was dumb then, and it’s dumb now, and the only bright spot of hope I have in the brouhaha is that kids growing up with Twitter now are forced to realize that their dumb shit might have repercussions down the line, so they divorce themselves from 4chan or whatever before it’s too late.”

It’s not an understatement to say people are increasingly wary of Twitter. Comedians, writers and directors are deleting old tweets by the thousands; journalists often use auto-delete tweet tools for peace of mind. The lesson taught between 2014 and now, including the recent firing of ArenaNet developer Jessica Price over her own Twitter interaction with a YouTuber, is that reactionary groups with loud enough audiences and an aggressive enough drive to see a fight through can result in their target facing consequences.

The question is, what happens next for comedians on Twitter? The answers vary.

“I’m not so sure Twitter will change at all with the James Gunn controversy,” Adejuyigbe says. “I think the most that will happen is that people will decide to wipe their old tweets away if they know there’s stuff in there that could damage them down the line, but I also think that comedians online generally don’t try to go for shock laughs unless they don’t have anything else to fall back on. Like, every once in a while there’s someone who tweets something that is obviously terrible, just for the attention, and they get quote-tweeted by a bunch of people and the repercussions are almost instant (if there are any), but that’s been happening for a while.”

Other comedians feel differently. The creative freedom that existed in 2009 is not available on Twitter today. Williams, a comedian who understands exactly what having a past video dredged up and weaponized can do to someone, doesn’t know.

“You have this scenario that feels like, ‘Well, if you make jokes about pedophiles, the Republicans are going to get you,’” Williams says. “Is that going to get worse? I mean, possibly. I feel like 2020 is going to be a big turning point in our culture. Either we’re going to continue down this road where trolls have the power, or maybe we’ll be able to step back from it a little bit and recognize the value of discourse and artistic statements above just trying to get everybody.”