Mary Houlihan (@MaryHoulie) on Performance-Based Tweets and Sweet Trolling

Mary Houlihan is a standup comedian and painter located in Brooklyn. She co-hosts the live show Cartoon Monsoon running at The Annoyance Theatre every Friday at 8pm until the end of July, and the monthly stand-up and character show CUBE at Muchmore’s every third Monday of the month at 9pm. In addition to her co-hosting gigs, Houlihan’s working on a one-woman show, producing a new Comedy Cassette Tape compilation of funny songs and sketches from people all over the USA released original artwork, and selling her paintings by mail and at her shows. This week Houlihan talked to me about three of her favorite tweets she’s made, as well as classic rock, clickbait, and old relatives’ emails.

Houlihan: Chris Elliott wrote a fictional autobiography called The Guy Under The Sheets that I so very much adore. There is a scene in the book that pretty much sums up my sense of humor, in which Chris and his collaborator Adam Resnick have a conversation with Chris’s fictional mother, Hollywood actress Bette Davis:

“Some people will laugh at the joke because they think it’s funny, but smart people will laugh at the joke because they realize it’s stupid – which makes it really smart.” “Because it’s stupid?” “Exactly.” “Why not just write a funny joke instead?” “Because, uh…” Resnick seemed genuinely perplexed. “It’s, uh, too…” said Chris. “Hard?” said Bette. “Yes, very hard,” they both said, nodding their heads in unison. “Much, much too hard.”

So this Beatles tweet. I mean, it’s pretty dumb. I really like the idea of “sweet trolling” – pretending to be dumb and not really understanding the social mores of the Internet. Does this person not know that half of the Beatles are dead? Do they think they’re going to get a response from Paul McCartney? Are they really old? Are they under ten years old? One of my favorite Twitter accounts and a continual source of inspiration is @dhhenleyfans, which from what I’ve gathered is a genuine fan account for Don Henley of The Eagles, who tweets in English despite not being a native English speaker. Practically half of their tweets are apologies for not being on Twitter for a while.

Aside from the obvious, are there key nuances that distinguish ‘sweet trolling’ from regular trolling?

The main thing I think is that it’s not mean, it’s just pretending to be dumb. Or acting disconnected from the prevailing sense of humor that you see on the Internet which is cynical and argumentative. I think the main goal is for someone to think you are simple and then interact with you based on that assumption. I had a tweet one time, “does ANYONE know where bruce springsteen is from??”, and it got RT’d by Bruce fan accounts and got a lot of replies from earnest people saying “Freehold, NJ” or “Asbury Park but later Freehold” and some just plain calling me dumb and asking if I lived under a rock.

I try to copy a lot of things I see on old relatives’ Facebooks or emails, like leaving a space between a word and an exclamation point, complicated emoticons, or my favorite - using a tilde before an exclamation point, which I can’t tell if that is supposed to represent excitement, or if it just means someone accidentally hit that key because it’s next to the exclamation point key ~! <|:^}

Are there other non-comedy Twitters that inspire or influence you? Do you seek those out as much as accounts that are intentionally funny?

I love anything that is classic rock related. I love it when you watch a YouTube video and look at the comments, and you see the regular comments that are filled with sexist and racial epithets, but then you see the few that are just like “I remember seeing this band when I was a 19. What a time to be alive. Young love, no worries. Every time I hear this song I think about that summer.” It’s really sweet and nice.

One style of account that I get followed and unfollowed by a lot and I really enjoy, is like, it will be a picture of a girl that looks like a Hollister model. And all the tweets are like “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” or like, “People come into your life for a reason… But sometimes, they leave for a reason, too.” I can’t tell if they are bots or if it is a person manually aggregating stolen tweets and text from Tumblr, and if so, why?

You mention the “social mores of the Internet”—what are some of your favorite/least favorite things about general online behavior?

Most people that I interact with are young adults, and involved in comedy in some way or another. So there is a whole echo chamber of people racing to quickly make pithy one-liners about whatever’s in the news/pop culture, Donald Trump, “dad bod,” sexy mugshots. I like making jokes about that stuff too but it can get pretty exhausting, looking at social media day after day, seeing the same stuff, especially because there is a desperation in wanting the validation that comes with it. I’m very guilty of that.

I hate clickbait. I’m honestly pretty disgusted by anyone that plays to people’s emotions to generate ad revenue. I like that there’s things like Clickhole and Reductress, and individuals making tweets that make fun of the “6 Things That Make You Know You’re A 90’s Kid ;)” because hopefully that puts pressure on those companies to create content with more tact and intelligence.

I do standup at night for drink tickets and do odd jobs during the day. A year ago I quit my job at a dog walking service because my boss kept paying me later and later, and his checks would bounce. It was super frustrating so I started making these really cheap paintings in the meantime until I found a new job, and promoting the business on Twitter and Facebook. I haven’t gotten a full-time job since then, so it is going pretty good!

I was really inspired by this artist Steve Keene, who sells tons of paintings for super cheap, and I’d seen them in a bunch of people’s apartments. Before doing comedy, I went to fine art college for Painting, and kinda thought I’d be a gallery artist. I’d make these huge things that took forever and try to charge $1,000 for them but they’d just sit in my room forever, until I started instead making a ton of fast paintings and selling them for cheap. Buy one! I have PayPal and Venmo and take orders by email.

How (if at all) does painting influence your jokes, and vice versa?

I have a couple parameters for what makes a painting good, or fun to look at. I look at paintings in the same way that you would look at a maze in a kids’ coloring book. Your eyes kind of move around the negative space and when you hit a dead end, your eyes move in a different direction to try to find another way out of the composition. I also squint my eyes so my vision is blurred. That way you can see contrast better. If all the colors are the same brightness, it just looks muted and boring. It’s more visually interesting when there’s light and dark areas for your eyes move around, and not get stuck. I feel like these principles relate to performing live comedy. There should be loud stuff, quiet stuff, physical bits and still bits. Smart and dumb. If it is all the same, it can feel kind of boring to watch after awhile.

If I could extend another very bad metaphor, live comedy sets should be like the way Kurt Cobain wrote songs - verse/chorus/verse - loud/quiet/loud.

Getting words wrong is so, so funny to me. I like to sing a lot of songs like Bonnie Raitt’s “Taco Bell,” including Cee-Lo Green’s “Shrek 2” (“I see ya drivin’ round town with that film I love n’ I’m like / Shrek TwoOOoo”).

Are there other favorite themes or formats of jokes that are always funny to you?

I love jokes that rely a lot on performance. I guess sometimes they are called anti-jokes. There is a comic Chris Jurek who has an exceptional Twitter. All of his tweets are like, “I like these guys who love pranks” or information about “deals.” He does this one joke on stage which goes something like “You guys ever do THIS?! You take your HOT coffee, and you pour COLD milk into it!! What is that?!!” and it is not really a joke or an unusual thing to point out, but pretending to be so revved up about something so simple and dumb is really funny to me. Sometimes people say that those kinds of jokes are “making fun of standup comedy,” but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think those kinds of things are funny even without the context of seeing “regular” standup, and people like Steve Martin have been doing that kinda stuff forever.

How well do you think your social media presence communicates your real life sense of humor? Is there one platform that you think communicates your humor best?

It’s tough to say! The jokes on my Twitter are pretty indicative of how I talk when I’m goofing with friends. When I’m performing live, a lot of it relies on performance and voices and spontaneity, and that can be hard to convey in text or video.

Photo by Mike Abrusci.

Jenny Nelson lives and writes in Brooklyn and works at Funny Or Die.

Mary Houlihan (@MaryHoulie) on Performance-Based […]