On Twitter, everybody thinks they can be a comedian

Professional comedian Conan O’Brien was sued by someone who claimed that O’Brien had copied the jokes he had sent on Twitter. O’Brien settled the case but said that it did not mean his writers had used other people’s material without attribution. He said that pretty much everyone was sending out jokes on the same topics and it was inevitable that there would be coincidences.

[D]ifferent people around the world come up with the same joke all the time, especially when the joke is topical. I was made aware of this 24 years ago, when, on the same night, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and I all told an identical “Dan Quayle is dumb” joke: “Dan Quayle announced today that he will not be running for President in ’96. However, he did not rule out running in ’97.” Back then, no one sued anyone because each of us knew that topical comedy often follows a pattern — it’s an occupational hazard. You try hard to avoid it, but sometimes, comedians inadvertently step on each other’s feet.

Now fast forward 20 years and add something called The Internet. On a chilly winter night, I delivered a joke about Tom Brady re-gifting his Super Bowl MVP truck to opposing coach Pete Carroll (trust me, Pete Carroll gags were hilarious back in 2015). What my writers and I didn’t know is that, at the same time, that joke was being written by literally 34 other people on Twitter, and one of those people decided he had been robbed. He then claimed we had stolen four other jokes, though we had proof that one of them was written prior to his posts. But none of that mattered, we were hit with a lawsuit.

The fact of the matter is that with over 321 million monthly users on Twitter, and seemingly 60% of them budding comedy writers, the creation of the same jokes based on the day’s news is reaching staggering numbers. Two years ago one of our writers came up with a joke referencing Kendall Jenner’s ill-fated Pepsi commercial, and so did 111 Twitter users. This “parallel creation” of jokes is now so commonplace that Caroline Moss of CNBC and Melissa Radzimiski of the Huffington Post have given it a name: “tweet-saming.” And, by the way, the person who sued me also tweeted the same Pepsi joke, but only after our show and 24 other tweeters beat him to it.

Not resisting the impulse to tweet the first thing that comes to your mind that you think is funny can have serious consequences with many people being embarrassed or worse. Most recently, a DJ for the BBC was sacked after a tweet he sent out.

Danny Baker has issued a statement to “formally apologise for the outrage I caused” after being sacked by BBC Radio 5 Live over a tweet about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s newborn son, Archie, which featured a picture of a chimpanzee.

The DJ has described the controversy over his tweet as “one of the worst days of my life”.

The post, which has since been deleted, showed a black-and-white photo of a well-dressed couple holding the hands of a suited chimpanzee with the caption: “Royal baby leaves hospital.”

Baker, 61, was sacked on Thursday morning following accusations of racism over the tweet.

The problem with Twitter is that the medium allows people to succumb to the temptation to send out their attempts at humor quickly, because everyone thinks they are comedians and want to be the first with a joke. This hinders any reflection about whether the joke is in good taste, let alone funny.

There have been many occasions when I have said something that I thought was funny and regretted it the moment it left my lips. Fortunately they were said in private and only a few people heard it. With Twitter, many will hear it and there is no taking it back.


  1. file thirteen says

    The post, which has since been deleted, showed a black-and-white photo of a well-dressed couple holding the hands of a suited chimpanzee with the caption: “Royal baby leaves hospital.”

    When I first saw that picture, I laughed aloud. Then a few seconds later, went “oh crap” as other possible meanings sank in. I’m personally sure that no racism was intended; I even think I’ve seen the same joke, many years before. But I don’t know everything and ymmv. Unfortunately, when someone says something on social media that causes offence, you can’t excuse it on the grounds that “they didn’t mean it” because sometimes people do.

    Be careful what you tweet I guess.

  2. Jazzlet says

    He may not have meant it, but racism is such an obvious possibility in the circumstances that he ought to have realised it and not tweeted the picture.

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