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One Liners in the Digital Age

As with so many other aspects of the Information Age, I came to Twitter reluctantly. I like to stay a good five- to- 15 years behind any given trend. That’s my comfort zone, and I find it lends the proper perspective.


Twitter seemed to me particularly puzzling at first. Microblogging. Hashtags. 140 characters. I just didn’t get it. Even the nomenclature stymied me. I’m still trying to figure out the past participle of “tweet”. You can get into a lot of trouble, conjugating that verb.


I’ve since come to appreciate the genius of Twitter – its efficiency and essential nimbleness as a mode of communication. But I’ll tell you what really sold me on Twitter: The one-liners.


My comedy nerd friends were quick to point out that Twitter is a great place for joke writing. I soon became a follower of prolific Twitter one-liner pros like John Hodgman, Michael Ian Black, Aniz Ansari and Stephen Colbert. 


Clearly, the challenge of getting a funny line down to 140 characters was inspiring a certain subsection of the Twitterverse. The one-liner is a venerable tradition that can be traced from the earliest days of show business right through to today’s late-night monologues.


The more I waded through the world of Twitter jokes, the more it put me in the mind of the comic style sometimes called Borscht Belt humor. Named after a resort region in the Catskill Mountains where comedians prowled from the ‘20s through the early ‘60s, the Borscht Belt style is probably best exemplified by Henny Youngman, King of the One Liners. (“Take my wife … please!”)


This variety of joke writing puts a premium on rapid-fire, self-contained lines that are stripped down to the utter essentials. Youngman was famous for 15-minute sets packed with dozens of jokes. But there’s also a certain tone to Borscht Belt humor: deceptively simple, occasionally blue, usually corny, and essentially disposable.


And so a project was quickly hatched: Borscht Belt Tweets. The premise was simple: a Twitter feed where all the jokes have to be written in the style and spirit of old Catskills one-liners. It turns out that a 140 character limit is a perfect size for this sort of thing.


I wouldn’t say the contributions have been pouring in, but it’s an interesting pop culture thought experiment. There’s an intriguing alchemical thing that seems to percolate when you cross ‘40s style one-liners with the passing concerns of the day, circa 2012.


Borscht Belt Tweets is now up and running @BorschtTweets. Here’s a sampling, and feel free to post your own ideas in the comments section.


Borscht Belt Tweets


140 characters? Sounds like my sister’s wedding reception!


Tough crowd, tough crowd. How many people we got in the room tonight? Twelve? What is this, Google Plus?


The inventor of the remote control died today. Nice man. Lovely man. He was buried between two couch cushions.


These new smart phones, I don’t know. They talk back to you! Hey, Siri, you’re a sweet kid but I already got a wife!


This Facebook is really something. You can be in constant touch with everyone you ever knew, all the time! I’m going to kill myself.


Somebody stole my credit cards. Yeah, but I’m not reporting it. The thief spends less than my wife did on Etsy.


My wife tells me about this Groupon. I say, hey I don’t swing that way, baby. She says it saves money. I’ll look into it.


I got a new girlfriend, she says she wants to start sexting. I says, I got enough trouble with this thing, now you want me to type with it?


“Doc,” I says. “I gotta banana in my ear.” He says: “Go fuck yourself, Morty, I just lost $350,000 on Facebook.”


Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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