You may have eventually seen it in your Facebook feed or in a chain email. It is the most widely consumed joke that I have produced. I don’t think it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever written, but that’s how these things go. Either way, it’s everywhere and it’s made me no money.
As a comedian, I like Twitter because it’s free and kind of merit-based. It’s a branch of comedy that you can just hurl thoughts into without an agent or manager. I like the instant reaction it gives you from the ether. It’s a vice, like cigarettes or candy. I like it a little too much.
On Feb. 13, I was sitting at the desk in my bedroom where I spend a lot of time poring over half-finished novels and mostly finished pizza pockets, thinking about the 10 years I’d spent so far on a comedy career that had a way of dying and restarting like the engine of an old truck. I was unemployed, unrepresented professionally and out of money in New York. I’d spend whole days alone, reading the news, taking it way too personally.
It occurred to me that of all mind-boiling aspects of the current presidential race, the worst part was arguing with people whom I considered friends. I watched people block and unfriend one another online. I spelunked into the human darkness that we call YouTube comment threads. I’d stare into the glow for hours, reading articles that supported views I had already decided were correct. I’d write angry Facebook posts, alienating myself from friends who happened to be voting for someone else. There has to be some common ground somewhere, I thought. I rattled out an opaque observation about the one thing that it seemed we could all agree on, the fact that things were getting weird.
This was somewhere around the 15,000th thing I had ever tweeted and this one took off, which is theoretically what I was trying to make happen with the first 14,999 tweets. That theory, however, assumes that the purpose of social media is to get famous, or that there is a purpose of social media at all. Either way, I would be lying if I told anyone it didn’t feel like a win. I watched my phone explode with notifications as I lay in bed staring into its artificial light. The Internet was telling me “Yes, Jake, you are indeed funny.”
My brain filled with dopamine. My phone buzzed and blinked. I was experiencing a mythologized modern experience: going viral.
When you’re pursuing a career in a field that’s both unrewarding and mostly D.I.Y. you cling to these little successes as if they are buoys in the water, assuring you that you’re not entirely lost at sea.
On the first night after the tweet took off, my name was trending in different cities around the globe. Celebrities were batting my joke at one another. People like John Hodgman, Bette Midler, Minnie Driver. People I watch in movies and don’t even consider real. Friends from all over the country got in touch to tell me they heard someone quote me. Someone in Britain immortalized it in needlepoint. The tweet reached easily more people than any album or podcast I’d ever produced.
It’s currently sitting at around 30,000 retweets on Twitter. On a nonprofit organization’s Facebook page it got almost 60,000 likes and 45,000 shares. This one joke landed me in FunnyOrDie and Playboy. If you’re an unknown comic these are fairly big feathers in your cap.
I woke up one morning and discovered that I was on CNN, in the middle of a piece about the Republican primary. My name and words were on television — all without making me a dollar. The irony was not lost on me, someone who finds irony in things for a nonliving. I was barely able to pay my rent while simultaneously (briefly) entertaining people all over the planet.
Over the years I’ve watched a lot of comedian friends achieve some success. It always feels as if there’s one big break that starts the whole process. I wonder how it happens. I don’t ask. I just keep working and waiting patiently. The big break is always ahead like a mirage on the highway. I stand in line at bodegas and roll my eyes at people who buy lottery tickets and then I continue to wait for the entertainment industry to hand me a job for being funny on Facebook. Sometimes irony is lost on me, I guess.
In February, while my joke was going viral, I was looking for a new day job. Interviews were both uplifting and depressing. I didn’t exactly think becoming a meme would launch my career, but hoped it would. I wanted to get paid to write, but I needed to get paid to do anything, so I hit Craigslist and started searching.
In March, I landed a bartending gig at a bar that hosts an open mike comedy night. My first night at work, when I finished my shift and was packing up to leave, the M.C. asked me if I wanted to go up and do some stand up.
I went up and launched into seven minutes of solid material I’d done at comedy clubs and music festivals around the country. In my 10 years of comedy, I have recorded an album and performed on the road. I knew what worked.
My plan was: I’d do my strongest material and crush, the analog equivalent of a rush of instant retweets. After all, I was famous on the Internet. What happened instead was I bombed, so hard. The room stared at me in silence as I moved through what I thought were road-tested jokes. It was like that nightmare where you show up to school naked. Words fell from my mouth and onto my shoes.
The thing I’ve always loved about stand-up comedy is that it is unable to show you mercy. For the last decade I’ve periodically thrown myself into comedy’s inferno for five minutes, 10 minutes, sometimes an hour at a time. I always come out of it feeling that I learned something.
Even when I do well I still feel mangled and worked over by it.
Sometime recently I stopped thinking that maybe I’d get rich. I even stopped thinking I’d quit. I started to love the baptism in battery acid that comes from bombing. I’ve stopped wishing for a life where I’m rich and famous and don’t have to work. Now I like the work.
I think the Internet is like a broken slot machine. I didn’t put any money into it, I received all of its flashing, shrieking, beeping cacophony when I hit its jackpot, and no money came out. I wondered why I’d believed in this system at all.
Very few people, in the scheme of things, get paid to write jokes. But the exposure is limitless. The fact that anyone can join Twitter almost guarantees that no one will parlay it into a moneymaking venture. It almost feels like socialism. It almost feels like something you might stay up all night arguing about on social media and never find an answer. Perhaps this is the last season of the Internet and the writers are just going nuts.