Great Comedy Myths of Our Time #1 – Twitter is killing comedy

We’ve all heard them, people in the media droaning on about how awful it is that decent, honest, talented comedians and shows are being ruthlessly picked-on by bored, unidentifiable people on social media, tweeting and Facebooking their vindictive opinions with the express purpose of KILLING PEOPLE’S CAREERS. Victims of these faceless snarksters include Ben Elton’s Live From Planet Earth, a show which in the pre-Twitter era would unquestionably have been a massive and deserved ratings hit, feted throughout the land as a work of unparalleled genius. Or not.

In this post we’re going to run through the arguments on both sides of this ongoing debate, starting with those of the affirmative. This conversation about the recent sitcom Twentysomething, which took place between Charlie Pickering, Jess Harris and Jon Faine on ABC Victoria’s Conversation Hour on 28th September 2011, covers most of them.

CP: …I’ve been very impressed by the response to the show, which…you have a look at anything vaguely in the realm of comedy in Australia seems to get torn down…

JH: Yeah.

CP: …almost the moment it hits the screen, but you have been very warmly received by the audience. Was that a relief? Were you waiting for the Twitter backlash, for everyone to be really critical once you’d really put yourself out there on the ABC?

JH: Yeah a little bit, I mean I’m so nervous of Facebook and Twitter, anything like that sort of scares me, that whole world, because it’s so instant and can be really nasty, so we were definitely worried. Josh and I actually used to sit down and say to each other the worst possible comments that we could think of, that people might say about us. Like “They’re ageing hacks, who do they think they are?”, and all this stuff, so we were ready for it…


CP: I like that “ageing” is the worst thing you could possibly say about yourself…

JH: No, but, you know…

JF: Yeah, they’re nearly 30, I mean reeeeaaaalllly…

JH: We were prepared for the worst, hoping for the best, and we were really lucky I think because it does have that sort of element of the underdog, you know, it was on Channel 31, people want to get behind it. It’s more when shows sort of, people are bigger names and there’s bigger hype around it, it gets cut down a lot more.

CP: Yeah.

JH: So, I think because we sort of floated under the radar, and ABC2 is such a great home for it, that really helped us, so we were worried by everyone’s really been positive.

CP: I think you have cracked the code of avoiding a Twitter backlash by saying worse things yourself…

JH: Yeah.

CP: …Tony Martin actually, when The Joy of Sets went to air, he was on Twitter criticising his own show…

JH: Really?

CP: …on Twitter…

JF: Against himself.

CP: …but saying the most offensive, horrible things about himself and about the show…


CP: …but what I think is brilliant about it is once the faceless people in Twitter who think they can say anything anonymously, once they know that one of the people they’re talking about is in that space with them they all went quiet.

JF: Are they all “flaming trolls”, or something? Isn’t that the…come on, you…?

JH: I don’t know that one.

CP: Is that the terminology?

JF: Yeah, yeah, you burn yourself, you’re a flaming troll, you say the worst possible thing, and of you go from there…it’s insurance, it’s terribly clever if you can be your own worst critic then nothing else is going to hurt you.

JH: Exactly, if you know what the faults are about it… I knew that people were going to have reactions to my character, say quite nasty things, I’m quite emotionally manipulative and I’m not necessarily, I’m an instantly un-likeable person, and people aren’t used to seeing girls play those roles all the time…

JF: An emotionally manipulative person would say that about themselves.

JH: I’m manipulating you right now.

JF: You think you are, but…

JH: I’ve got you in a web.

JF: I’m up to that, I’m up to that!

Wow! Looks like the tweeps and the Facebookers have really got this country’s comedians rattled. Which would be all very well if they themselves weren’t all over social media, spruiking their wares at all hours of the day and night, and stinking up the place with sarky observations roughly akin to the ones they’re objecting to when they come from ordinary people and happen to be about shows they’ve involved in. Could it be that their real objection is to the fact that they are no longer the only ones standing on the stage, as it were?

On social media the power balance is rather different to that of the performer and their audience. Ordinary, everyday tweep @Johnny100Followers can get as many re-tweets as, say, @Wil_Anderson, if he manages to tweet the right thing at the right time. And when it comes to big issues and breaking news, it’s often not the comedians on Twitter who get in first or tweet the best gags. Within seconds of anything happening thousands of amateur gagsmiths are tweeting puns and satirical observations about it. In a lot of cases they’re funnier than anything the Good News World team can come up with, or The Chaser will put to air in The Hamster Wheel – you also don’t have to wait days to hear them. In this context, is it any wonder that social media is full of people picking apart comedy shows, and, essentially, demanding that professional comedians are funnier than the amateur ones? Is that really so unreasonable, or unfair?

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon either. In the pre-internet age whenever two or more were gathered in front of the telly it was on for young and old. Families, groups of friends, whoever…would dissect a show as it went to air, laughing at poor fashion choices, slagging-off lame comedians and dismissing hours of work by skilled professionals with the phrase “Well, that was a waste of time”. The only difference now is that there’s a way to express such views beyond the confines of your family or circle of friends, and, if your ideas have resonance with others, to see them spread like wildfire. No wonder people in the media are scared, this isn’t like the old days when members of the public objecting to their work were essentially confined to private correspondence or the odd letter to a newspaper, people’s views on your TV show or stand-up set are out there forever, and they can’t be dismissed.

So while it’s hardly news that people talk about how bad some shows are, and that this talk eventually filters its way back to the network, what Twitter does do is speed the whole process up. In earlier years general discussion or week-by-week ratings figures would eventually have an effect – in 1999 The Mick Molloy Show was taken off air after eight weeks, but the controversy that crippled it (“Mick’s pissing on his couch!”) was all around episode one. Now that the “get this shit off” response is all but instantaneous, these days The Mick Molloy Show would be lucky to see week two. That causes a bit of a problem when it comes to comedy, which often requires time to settle in. Time that, in the case of anything remotely high-profile, it now rarely gets before being shunted off to a graveyard slot (at best) or being axed (at worse).

The other problem is that if Twitter is accurate – and despite the comedian’s complaints, we reckon it’s at least as accurate as any other method of gauging audience response – the results might prove to be a little depressing. Australian comedy is often crap, but it’s crap because it aims (relatively) high and fails. By “high” we mean scripted sketch shows, panel shows, sitcoms, news round-ups and the like. What we’re not currently getting is a bunch of prank shows and people making jokes about YouTube clips, even though that kind of thing traditionally does fairly well.

It’ll only take one lowbrow prank show to get praise on Twitter for the flipside of the current situation to become clear. After all, shows like MasterChef and Australian Idol get a lot of positive Twitter buzz; it’s not much of a leap to suggest that a show as tired yet pandering as the second series of The Chaser’s War on Everything – which was a rating hit – would also have been a hit on Twitter. Throw more pies at politicians!

Or it could just be that people on Twitter really are just knee-jerk haters trying to get attention for themselves with their nasty comments. In which case that’ll become obvious the first time Twitter hates a show that rates well and is generally seen as a success. Oddly, that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Meanwhile, back in the past, anyone remember 2005’s Let Loose Live? Live sketch show kinda like Live From Planet Earth, also generally seen as crap, also axed after a few weeks? All that played out before Twitter was a gleam in the internet’s eye.

There are signs that the days of “Twitter took my series away” are already over: both The Joy of Sets and Good News World are still screening (albeit in later timeslots), despite fairly rapid ratings drops. Twitter didn’t kill off Hamish & Andy’s Gap Year either, and it’s had no effect whatsoever on any show screening on the ABC. It seems that Twitter is mostly just a source of easy quotes for media reports on shows that didn’t do all that well. When a show fails, Twitter is to blame; when a show succeeds, Twitter is nowhere to be found.

And while we’re here, we think it’s worth putting into context the tweets Tony Martin posted as The Joy of Sets episode 1 was going to air. Here they all are:

Tweet 1 – This is already shit! I give it twenty-five seconds. #joyofsets

Tweet 2 – Oh, yeah, right, like I couldn’t see THAT coming, you Andrew Denton wannabe! #joyofsets

Tweet 3 – Obviously, the TV guides have mistakenly listed this as a comedy! #joyofsets

Tweet 4 – I’d like to laugh, but I can’t hear what they’re saying over the sound of the show SUCKING BALLS! #joyofsets

Tweet 5 – If this show were a lesser-known Ealing-based screenwriter, it’d be Angus McFAIL! #joyofsets

We disagree with Charlie Pickering’s assessment that they were “ the most offensive, horrible things about himself and about the show”, they were jokes sending-up a certain type of rabid tweep – and they sent them up rather well. They also failed to shut down online debate on The Joy of Sets, which rages to this day – as it has every right to do.

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  • Elaine says:

    A very interesting piece, although in the case of Joy of Sets, the Twitter response seems largely to have been positive. That show is more in the odd situation that its ratings don’t reflect the positive Twitter response. Whether it’s the case that people are watching it online, or taping it, rather than watching it live, I don’t know. In terms of the reverse – poor Twitter for a show that rates well – could I suggest Can of Worms? I recall that copped largely savage Twitter, and other Internet, comment but seems to have done quite well ratings-wise.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    With Joy of Sets an initial flurry of excitement on Twitter during the first episode seems to have diminished over time. That’s even true of the hardcore Tony Martin/Get This fans. I’ve noticed they’ve been a lot quieter in recent weeks.

    With Can of Worms I suspect Zapruder’s took note of some of the key criticisms of the show being made by tweeters, bloggers, etc, and took action. It’s amazing how many things were fixed or refined or experimented with further in the early part of that show’s run. That’s how smart producers should be using Twitter and other online forums.

    It’s a bit hard for comedians, admittedly, their natural instinct is to want to send up their critics – Ben Elton did this, he was funny and right in what he said in many ways (despite not seemingly to entirely “get” Twitter), but he also came across as an over-sensitive tool.

  • Elaine says:

    Yes, that’s a good point about Can of Worms. I guess what I meant, though, is that I found it interesting at the time that all the Twitter negativity had no effect on people tuning in on week two. And with Joy of Sets, I just mean that, even if the level of comment is less than it was (which I guess tends to happen, as it’s really being ‘in for the kill’ for the first ep of a show that people seem to get into?), it seems to have had a positive response on the whole, rather than having overcome negative Twitter to stay on air. Maybe it’s even been the positive Twitter that’s helped it stay on air.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    Totally agree. No one really wants shows they’ve tuned in to watch to be bad. But if they are bad they’re going to say so.