Is Twitter killing topical comedy?

Jay Richardson investigates...

'We'll be sitting in the room, someone comes up with a perfectly good gag and I'll have to say “Damn. I saw that on Twitter.”'

So admits Pete Sinclair, one of the writers for Have I Got New For You, who says that creating topical comedy is becoming tougher in the age of social networking.

He confesses that seeing jokes online creates ‘a moral dilemma’ adding: ‘I know [my co-writer] came up with the same joke independently but can we just put it through? Can you let it seem like you've ripped off Twitter?'

Increasingly, the first many of us become aware of a breaking news story is via a retweeted pun. The horsemeat scandal was hardly out of the gate before thousands of amateur jokesmiths had entered the race with the professionals, jockeying to contrive the wittiest, most popular tweets about equine consumption.

A few pros, such as Simon Evans, have ceded the field to the masses, happy to join in like a gentlemen pitching in for the sport (as he describes here). Twitter is wonderfully efficient at delivering topical gags, crowd-sourcing and promoting the juiciest bon mots, admittedly alongside an awful lot of offal. But like a suspect lasagne, it quickly becomes difficult to discern where various bits of setup and punchline originated from.

'In the past, when a massive news story happened, the gags would go round the pub, sick gags, untellable gags' Sinclair reflects. 'But they didn't have the same public circulation. Then texting arrived and you'd be getting the same jokes again and again from your mates. Now it's a competition in which literally anyone can participate.'

Have I Got News For You, which returns for its 45th series next Friday, has a Twitter account posting offcut gags that didn't make the edit. Sinclair admits to paranoia that jokes he's penned earlier in the week will only make this knacker's yard by the time it comes to recording, or worse, in the space between recording and broadcast, in part thanks to Twitter.

'Some of the other writers said “Are you sure you should be looking at Twitter?' he recalls. 'But I'm not sure I shouldn't, because otherwise we're going to look like idiots if we're submitting a three-day-old gag. The internet has made everything so instant.'

Parody accounts notwithstanding, Sinclair acknowledges that social networking has been a boon for greater access to the inner thoughts of politicians and celebrities, with George Osbourne's recent arrival on Twitter a particular source of joy.

Meanwhile, television is picking up on Twitter's potential to effectively write their shows, bespoke-tailoring episodes to their audience's agenda. On Monday, BBC Three shot the pilot of Fat Pipes, in which the audience at home can interact live through Twitter and Facebook with presenter Iain Stirling and tech-savvy comedians like Sanderson Jones and Mawaan Rizwan.

Of all the social media comedy attempted recently – including the BBC pilots Chris Ramsay's Social Network and @cuff with Jarred Christmas, as well as the ITV panel show Trending Topics with Jonathan Ross – Fat Pipes sounds the most democratic and devolved in terms of relinquishing control to viewers.

Arguably the most successful show in this regard is Channel 4's The Last Leg with its hashtag question #isitok. Viewers tweet in questions of potentially dubious taste, satisfying their curiosity without fear of reprisals beyond a mild ribbing from Adam Hills or his co-hosts Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker.

#isitok evolved organically from Channel 4's Paralympics coverage claims the show's commissioning editor Syeda Irtizaali.

'Very quickly, people were asking the etiquette around disability, what you can and can't ask. A couple of questions began “Is it OK …?”, so at our very first editorial meeting I said, “people want us to do this, it's perfect”. It came to define the [Paralympic] show and really took off, continuing into the main show. It amazes me how brilliant and witty people are when they send their stuff through.'

Pointing to research that states 40 per cent of Twitter traffic is related to television and that 60 per cent of Twitter users tweet while watching the box, she adds: 'Part of topical comedy is to reflect the nation and the nation's opinions are a big part of that. So being able to tap directly into it is a joy. If television had tried to create a multi-platform element when the internet began, they couldn't have come up with anything better than Twitter.

‘It has enhanced and improved television because it becomes a collective experience again. In a fragmented, digital world, it gives you an identity that we're all together. We gather round our Twitter feeds like we used to do in families. It's something we're absolutely 100 per cent behind and pushing forward all the time.'

Despite the obvious legal, taste and compliance issues thrown up by a live programme like The Last Leg, which ends its first series tonight, there's a clear advantage it has over pre-recorded shows like Have I Got News For You.

'Sometimes you feel like you're watching a step behind with them' says Irtizaali. 'Which is unfair I know, but this is the immediacy now. When the horsemeat thing broke, we were deluged with responses but we could expand upon them and be a bit clever.'

For Sinclair, Twitter won't kill topical comedy, and might even improve it, forcing writers to develop 'the second wave of gags'. ‘Those brilliant one-liners first see the light of day on Twitter, and therefore you have to think of other angles,' he said.

He points to Jack Dee's recent appearance on 8 Out Of 10 Cats, where the panellists took a more 'storytelling' approach to covering horse meat.

'I remember Jack had a good bit about DNA. How did they know the DNA came from the meat? Maybe a horse was at the abattoir and started crying. Which was nice. It's not a one-liner and quite a lot is in the delivery. You can't get that on Twitter.'

Published: 29 Mar 2013

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