CHICAGO — For about 20 years, Joe Schmitt kept his wit and off-kilter observations largely to himself, occasionally cracking up his wife and friends, but sharing little with the world around him.
Then came Twitter. The social networking Web site and Schmitt’s sense of humor mixed like Mentos and Diet Coke, and the man has since been spraying the Internet with 140-character bursts of funny.
On Palm Sunday he wrote: “Yes, I rode to church on a donkey this morning. It’s no big deal — my car was in the shop. Why is everyone making a fuss?”
As swine flu mania was ramping up, he tweeted, simply: “‘Ahhh-choink!’ (uh-oh).”
And at one of his mundane work meetings — he’s a Web strategist at a Chicago ad firm — Schmitt dryly noted: “You know what this meeting needs? More acronyms.”
Schmitt and folks like him have turned the rapidly evolving Twitter site into a 24-hour comedy club, democratizing the dispersion of jokes and revealing themselves as remarkably talented comedic writers.
The volume of amusing tweets has become such that HarperCollins is publishing a book called “Twitter Wit,” due out in October.
“There are all these people who never considered themselves comedians or writers, they were just funny people,” said Nick Douglas, the man behind the book. “And suddenly they’re getting this larger appreciation.”
The funny material out there ranges from snarky observational humor to short comedic scenes. Some people play the roles of smart-aleck dogs and cats, while one New York City comedian has given voice to the “common — squirrel,” sending out daily, instinctual tweets like “run run run run run” and “eat eat eat eat eat.”
“I haven’t had an outlet like this in 20 years,” said Schmitt, a deceptively young-looking 40-year-old. “I love to make jokes. Not all of my friends think I’m hilarious. Certainly not all of my co-workers think I’m hilarious, but I’ve found an audience that does.”
That audience consists of the more 3,000 people who “follow” Schmitt’s updates on Twitter. Adding to that, his followers routinely re-send Schmitt’s tweets to their followers, creating a “she told a friend, and she told a friend ...” effect that has made him a player in this nascent comedic realm. (Twitter users voted him the second-funniest person on Twitter in the Shorty Awards last year, a sort of Academy Awards for tweets.)
The best way to find Twitter humor is to visit the Web site favrd.textism.com, known generally as Favrd (pronounced “favored”). It’s there that Twitter comedians find a measure of how people are responding to their tweets.
On every Twitter post, there’s a star to the right of the text that can be clicked. By clicking it, a Twitter user saves the tweet in a file called “Favorites.” The Favrd Web site monitors how often a tweet gets a star. Three stars earn the tweet a spot on the regularly updated Favrd site, where it’s then exposed to an even larger audience.
“I didn’t really get Twitter for the first couple of weeks, but then once I found Favrd, that was a game changer,” said Henry Birdseye, a 24-year-old DePaul University graduate student who tweets under the name “tehawesome.” “I saw how the medium could be used for short little ... one liners. I thought, ‘Wow, I can make jokes with this and not just tell people what I’m eating for lunch.’”
Sean Cusick, who teaches comedy writing at the Second City Training Center, said Twitter provides a sound training ground for comedic writing, largely because of its quick pace and immediacy.
“The creative process is similar to what we use here at Second City,” he said. “It’s rooted in improvisation. You’re walking down the street and you say, ‘Holy crap, this just happened,’ and then you’re Twittering about it. The best comedy tends to pop into your head.”
That’s what Aimee Brock — known to her followers as “Aimee —B—Loved” — has found.
“Sometimes you only have a 140-character thought and it’s probably best if it’s not expanded,” said Brock, 24, who works as a copywriter at a branding agency in Wichita, Kan. “The type of things that people would worry about if you said them out loud are usually the kind of things I come up with.”
Things such as this recent tweet: “Is it still illegal to kill and eat a panda? I’m asking for a friend.”
One of the kings of Twitter comedy is a 37-year-old Canadian named Jason Sweeney, or “sween” as he’s known online. He has more than 200,000 followers, largely because of tweets like this: “Bald men should rebrand themselves as imaginhairy.”
“Twitter allows me to take all these weird thoughts in my head and put them out there,” said Sweeney. “Everyone needs something to exercise their brains.”
Like most in the Twitter world, Sweeney is humble about his work and quick to note the fine and funny work of others. As to what it means to be a Twitter celebrity, and what sort of end there might be to this mass outpouring of humor and talent, Sweeney and his fellow Twitterers are unsure.
“I have no idea if anything from Twitter will go anywhere,” Sweeney said. “I’d love it if somebody came along and said, ‘Hey, you’re funny and we like what you’re writing, come write something for us.’ But if not, it’s still just fun.”
Cusick said he believes mainstream comedians and comedy writers will pay attention to what’s happening on Twitter and watch how it affects what people think comedy should be.
“I’m wondering what kind of changes in content this might bring about,” Cusick said. “There has to be some kind of end result to all this.”
If not, Sweeney and Schmitt and Brock, common — squirrel and the cast of characters they surround themselves with can always go back to basics.
“In that very small, 140-character window, to create a really great, funny mental image is a real challenge,” Sweeney said. “At the same time, pretty much everybody laughs at a poop joke.”
Here are a few examples of 140-character works of Twitter comedy:
— “i like my women like i like my beer: tasty, rich, kinda thick, a little malty, almost empty, comes in a box, recyclable, what was i doing??/” — @tehawesome
— “I love watching my wife sleep, but it feels a bit like stalking. Maybe I should try it from in the bed, instead of out here in the bushes.” — @toldorknown
— “I like the communion wafers that stick to the roof of your mouth because I really like to savor my Savior.” — @Aimee — B — Loved
— “With thousands of car salespeople being put out of work today, panhandlers are about to get a whole lot pushier.” — @BlueLanugo
— “Listen, Batman. You can call it a “utility belt” all you want. I know a fanny pack when I see one. Just hand me the wet-nap and shut up.” — @sween
— “Wife put crock pot cooking corned beef dinner near open window. Had to beat three Leprechauns and two Kennedys off the window sill.” — @giromide
— “Are the employees at the Post Office immortal? Because that would go a long way towards explaining their lack of urgency.” — @joeschmitt
— “Hit 9 bikers on the way to work this morning. Love the quiet ride of the hybrid. We get points for this at the end of the week, right? ;)” — @Kathy — L
— “Either cartoon ladies are getting way hotter or I need to keep this kind of thing to myself.” — @hotdogsladies
— “Follow your dreams. ...Did anyone see a Zooey Deschanel made of donuts come through here?” — @luckyshirt