All of Alyssa Limperis’s characters are on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The L.A. comedian’s Twitter account specializes in 30-second videos in which she embodies the soul of the Coachella airhead, the aggrieved mother of three, or the loudest girl in the lecture hall. Each of their dispatches ends in medias res. There’s no conclusion or resolution; the run time trickles out mid-groan, mid-sentence, or mid-nothing. Someone just turns off the camera. It’s a hard cut to void, their fates left twisting in the wind. According to Limperis, that’s the point.
“[My characters] are desperate for a laugh or attention, and you can imagine the desperation they’re about to fall into,” she says. “I think it’s just funnier to leave that with the viewer. Just to show them what that actually looks like.”
You could call it the Vine-ification of Comedy Twitter: Performers all over the country have accepted that endings are overrated. The traditional precision of a sketch — the writerly fussiness to craft the perfect kicker or gimmick — has atrophied. It feels more visceral, says Limperis, to turn on her phone’s front-facing camera and riff as quickly and natively as possible. “That’s reality. Reality has a lot of awkward conversations or awkward pauses,” she continues. “It feels closer to life to not give these characters a perfect ending.”
Twitter has gone through so many evolutions during its time in the culture, but right now it’s particularly favorable for this specific strain of comedy — the sort of joke that blindsides you, an unfiltered moment in time, rather than a first, second, and third act. Atsuko Okatsuka, another L.A. comedian who uploads dozens of left-of-center Twitter clips to her account, nails it when I ask her to define her methodology: “Okay, here’s the weird part. Good-bye.’”
“There’s a million ways to get an extra joke out of something just through editing,” said Doug Lussenhop, a longtime editor and writer of Tim and Eric and The Eric Andre Show, in a 2015 interview with Fast Company. “Comedy is basically all timing and messing with expectations and surprises and stuff. A lot of times, I’ll get something and it’s funny on the page, but then it’s not coming across. So you cut part of it short or let something roll for too long or add the perfect sound effect. There are so many ways to do it; you just have to find a new way each time.”
The frenetic surreality of shows like Tim and Eric, The Eric Andre Show, and Wonder Showzen was perfect for the morphing grammar of online video and our own collective shrinking attention spans, in a time when even CNN condenses breaking news into chyron-size nibbles. Vine’s short-lived comedy empire asked the world to fit punch lines into six seconds or less, which gave us a canon of Dadaist classics (“Not to be racist or anything,” “Trey’s basketball game,” and, of course, “Freesh avaca-do”). It is one of the accidental discoveries of the format wars; much as South Park taught us that naughty words have more impact when they’re bleeped, Vine showed that a punch line is funnier when we hear only a fraction of it.
Another performer carrying that banner is Brooklyn comedian and Los Espookys star Ana Fabrega, who, like Limperis, uses Twitter to author elliptical, eccentric sketches that clearly evoke Vine’s spirit. (“Yeah, I’m making beans,” Fabrega gripes, as the camera zooms in on a boiling pot sitting on her stove.) Fabrega is firmly on the traditional stand-up circuit, but she still found a way to inject some of that internet-derived teenage oddness into her humor. It’s more freeing, she says, to make jokes without worrying about cleaning up afterward.
“I’m not giving [the audience] any more information. It’s just ‘Here’s this joke, make of it what you will,’” she explains. “When I started stand-up, I thought I had to write a bunch of context around [these jokes]. Then I started making these videos and I realized that [onstage] I could just say them like I would in a video.”
There is perhaps no better distillation of the form Fabrega is talking about than Dan White’s instant-hit Bill Murray video. It’s a modern classic: White is enjoying a surreal walk in the park with Murray before collapsing to the ground as a result of some unseen calamity. According to White, the clip cuts off shortly before he broke character and started apologizing profusely to Murray. “He knew the fall was coming, but I think he was a little alarmed at how hard I ate shit,” he remembers.
“[It’s] almost like a magic trick. I’ll rewatch some things ten times just to figure out what exactly I just saw that made me laugh. It also allows the viewer to kind of fill in context for themselves,” White says. “You basically get to keep heightening, then just bail at peak comedy or chaos. Endings are always the hardest part of sketch comedy, so it kind of removes the pressure to put a nice bow on something … In that way, without a clean ending, it adds to the craziness of the whole thing.”
Chris Distefano is the same way. His Twitter videos present him as the patron saint of northeastern fuhgeddaboudit sleaze. Usually, they cut off as he’s saying something strange or uncouth, like the worst possible advice your uncle has ever given you about lactose intolerance. “Editing that way leaves a little mystery. Like, ‘What did he say?’” he explains. “I think it makes people watch it again.”
Distefano organizes his sets in the mold of guys like Bill Burr or Mike Birbiglia: with very few setups or punch lines and a laser focus on simply being funny. It’s the sort of comedy that forces your head out of the creative process, so it’s not surprising when he says a messy editing style helps him get to the heart of his bits. “‘Telling jokes’ to me feels very old-school and dated,” he says. “The cutting off of those videos is in that world. It’s not polished. I think people like a non-polished bit more than a polished-up bit nowadays.”
That lack of polish is a difficult thing to bottle. Twitter videos are like news bloopers; the humor comes from the sheer looseness of the debacle we’ve just witnessed. Sometimes that can be exasperating: White spends a career dreaming up funny ideas and they’re all outperformed by a 21-second disaster in front of Bill Murray.
“The internet is messy, and it’s made our comedy brains messy,” White says. “It’s funny and often supremely frustrating that I can spend 30 seconds on a viral tweet that millions of people see or watch, but the vast majority of my creative efforts are spent writing and producing scripts that maybe a thousand people watch, because they aren’t really ‘built’ for social-media consumption. But more often than not, the latter tend to be the things I watch from other comedians that most stick with me over time.”
That frustration can spill over into stand-up, too. Some people interviewed for this story say the DNA of a Twitter-video hard cut feels connected to the endorphin rush of a tight five. (As Okatsuka puts it, “You say something and you get an immediate reaction.”) But Fabrega did occasionally struggle to integrate her Twitter videos into her stand-up sets. In those moments, the advantage of the mid-bit cut is most evident. No matter how weird or experimental her tweets are, the audience always knows when the punch line has been delivered. Videos end. Eventually, you’re staring at a black screen. There’s no such benefit onstage.
“It took me two months of going to open mics to really commit to ‘Okay, I’m going to just say one line that I think is funny, and the joke is five seconds long.’ It took me a while to figure out how to structure an eight-minute set like that, where people understand clearly when a joke starts and when a joke ends,” says Fabrega. “I had to learn to indicate to the audience, ‘Okay, I’m done with that joke, we’re moving on to another one.’”
That’s the rub with Twitter videos. They exist in a weird place between sketch and stand-up. They’re the first dumb thing that pops into your head, and they’ll be the first impression that potentially millions of people have of you. So perhaps it’s best to think about Twitter videos the way Distefano does, as an entirely separate canon that aims to reveal one of the most important empathies in comedy: that the comedian, like you, isn’t perfect.
“The person watching is like, ‘This guy makes mistakes too, this guy’s got his videos cutting off, this guy isn’t all polished and buttoned-up, this guy is like me,” he says. “It makes us, as comedians, more relatable.”
“That’s what people want,” he adds. “They want to get to know you.”