Rebecca O’Neal Uses Twitter to Diagram Her Jokes

Rebecca O’Neal.
Rebecca O’Neal. Photo: Jenni Walkowiak

Rebecca O’Neal (@becca_oneal) is a comedian, writer, and former host of the stand-up television show WCIU’s One Night Stand-Up in her hometown of Chicago. She now resides in Brooklyn, where she was named among TBS’s 2018 Comics to Watch, has performed on 2 Dope Queens, and appeared on season two of Netflix’s Easy.

This week, O’Neal spoke with me about posting jokes as a pre-screen for open mics, writing from a millennial perspective, and getting booked for shows via Twitter.

I called this dude “Tyrone” pejoratively — which I thought was a hilarious way to label someone a broke, useless, fuckboy. The roast landed, but a few days later, the song was randomly on and I’m like, Woaaaaahhhh, wait, wait. Tyrone was not Ms. Badu’s titular protagonist at all — because how can the fuckboy CALL Tyrone if he issss Tyrone! Then came the tweet because I realized everyone makes this mistake, and Tyrone is the Frankenstein of the black community.

Have you ever taken a tweet and developed it into longer material?
I treat tweets like an open mic pre-screen. I try new versions of existing material, tags to existing jokes, new material I want to try that night or soon — and I also just tweet whatever is on my mind that I find funny or compelling or amusing. At shows sometimes, I’ll scroll through my recent tweets while I’m coming up with a set list to see if anything jumps out to potentially be expanded upon onstage. Even with 280 characters now, Twitter is very concise, and it makes you work to get your wording right. Onstage, you have more room to flesh out ideas, so tweeting is like when you’re diagramming a sentence and you’ve got the two lines for the subject and verb — then onstage you’re adding all this language and branches to the diagram that started with a tweet.

Black Twitter has turned on me more than once for being too loose with my opinions about Media for Us by Us, so this was my way of subtweeting while maintaining the integrity of my mentions. I will say though that I love Luke Cage and Marvel everything, but one time Luke is investigating a crime, says dude he suspects seems to be doing well financially all of a sudden, and the camera pans to about three pair of Off-Off Broadway brand sneakers.

Do you have any favorite topics to tweet about?
Myself and how my experiences relate to the larger world? Which is going full millennial, but I do feel — perceived narcissism aside — the more specific you can get about describing your unique human experience, the more universally relatable it will be, even to people whose lives and experiences are nothing like yours. I do my best to not just talk about what’s going on with me but how those things make me feel, how I react to them … that’s where the comedy is. Moby Dick is one of the top books of all time that American kids of all backgrounds have to read because of its literary and cultural significance, but I don’t know anyone who has beef with a whale … not that I’m cranking out Melville-level tweets.

This is a form from an astrology website. I’d love if outer space and planets were to blame for my weird life, but I’m not even that into astrology. So obviously the guy I was dating at the time was — and I let him do my natal chart, his natal chart, our compatibility natal charts, etc., and this joke was the only thing of value I got from that whole fling.

What do you get out of being on Twitter?
I’ve been on Twitter for ten years. Which sounds impossible. But before stand-up, I was writing about comedy for different publications and was an editor at Splitsider, and I feel like I got to see a peek behind the curtain before I ever took the stage. I was Twitter friends with a lot of comedians before I worked up the courage to actually try stand-up, so when I started dipping my toe and tweeting jokes before I made up my mind to hit a mic, their positive feedback definitely gave me the push to go through with it. If comics I looked up to thought my jokes were funny, maybe they’re funny! For ten years. [Laughs.] I also get a lot of bookings that way and promote shows, get my news, beg for Venmo donations. [Laughs.]

Got pulled over in Jersey on the way from headlining in Philly at Good Good Comedy Theater. Hid the recreationals under my wig because I knew the white cops wouldn’t find it. They took my BF’s car overnight, locked him up for a few hours, and we missed the first day of Afropunk. While we were at the station, I’m shook because this cop behind the intake glass announces over the PA that my MOM IS ON THE PHONE, and I thought she was just psychic, but then she reminded me that I checked in at the jail on Facebook when I posted this video. Very on brand tbh.

Haha! That’s an incredible story. How much of your life do you tweet about? Is there any part of your life that you feel is off-limits or too private?
I have an internal code of lines I don’t cross, but I like being open and digging into the way I think and my personality. The stuff I enjoy is like that — personal essays by Camus and Montaigne are pretty much doing the same thing except a long time ago and in French … but they overshared THE MOST, putting everything they thought and believed out there with their unique POV, and it’s still super relatable in 2018. Montaigne wrote about farts, scammers and cheaters, and fake friends; Camus has this essay that’s basically the old-timey version of Don’t Feed the Trolls. So this isn’t new; it’s just a new medium for the same type of expression humans have always been compelled to. I don’t seek experiences for their comedic value, but if I find myself in a situation that sucks, better believe I’m squeezing all the comedy blood from that stone. Even if that just means live-tweeting my arrest and twerking in a rural New Jersey police station. My friends joke that if they want to know where I am or what I’m up to and can’t get in touch with me, they’ll just look at my Twitter since I probably posted my longitude and latitude.

Karen Chee is a Brooklyn-based comedian who writes for The New Yorker, McSweeney’sand Shondaland, among other cool websites.

Rebecca O’Neal Uses Twitter to Diagram Her Jokes