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Surfing the wave of topicality: the art of reaction on social media

By James Martin | Creative lead

That Lot


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July 25, 2016 | 6 min read

I picked this title because it’s a phrase I heard someone use in a meeting the other day, and it made me feel that I could legitimately write topical jokes, while pretending to be like Keanu Reeves in Point Break (albeit a shoddy re-make where he sits hunched over a laptop, surfing the net instead of actually surfing, and rather than taking down ‘The Ex-Presidents’ and their fake faces, he writes devastating satire about potential ‘Future-Presidents’ and their fake hair).

James Martin of That Lot

James Martin is a creative lead at That Lot

Topical humour is very much the life-blood of Twitter; famously the shortest period of time known to scientists is that between an event happening and some wise-ass doing a joke about it on Twitter. One of the things I like most about Twitter is how you get to see great gags from established comedians alongside brilliance from others. The democratic nature of Twitter may be subject to the occasional coup (#topical) but a good gag will be shared no matter who has made it. While there are thousands of people better placed to give advice on writing jokes (trust me, I’ve counted) here are a few observations from personal experience.

Pikachu, meet Theresa May

Some of the best jokes seem to take two or more news stories, or things from popular culture, and then mate them to produce hilarious offspring. At the time of writing, it seems like Pokémon Go is everywhere (which is even more terrifying when you realise that it literally is) so there’s clearly humour to be found by mashing that together with politics for example. We’re still on the hunt for Pokémon Gove.

Planned spontaneity

The equivalent of taking someone on a date, which is apparently impromptu, but has all the meticulous planning of a bank robbery, like the ones in Point Break (okay, dropping the analogy now). Often, it’s possible to anticipate big stories and prepare for different outcomes, meaning you can react instantly when one of them arises - some of the biggest hitters have clearly been created in advance and then kept on the hot-plate before being served up as if straight from the events oven.

It’s not a marathon OR a sprint

The wave of topicality on Twitter tends to have a distinct shape - within milliseconds of a story appearing, there will be thousands of people going full Usain Bolt to get their jokes out.

Cameron resigns and Twitter users, perhaps fittingly happier than pigs in shit, posted all of their ‘Cameroff’ and ‘David Camergone’ tweets within seconds. After this, there will tend to come more developed or elaborate jokes/photoshops/videos. That’s not to say that these will be any better than some of the instant jokes, but sometimes it seems like it’s worth taking the extra time to craft something, rather than battle it out with the thousands of other people who will probably have exactly the same thought.

Either that or you curse yourself after spending ages photoshopping Kim Jong Un onto the Death Star, only to find that someone else did it several hours earlier.

Punchlines that actually pack a punch

There are few things more disappointing than when you get to the end of a delicious drink, and the ice has melted and made it all watery. It’s the same with jokes, when a promising initial premise or set-up then becomes a disappointing slush at the end. A really strong punchline should be like a sledgehammer blow directly to the funny-bone - the best jokes seem to have the punch-word at the end.

Reorganise the words to make it so. *reorganises words*: the best jokes always end with the punch-word.

And yes, there is such a thing as a punch-word. In future, scientists hope to be able to reduce this to a punch-letter to save on packaging.

Too soon?

It seems to be a maxim for modern life that you can tell how well respected someone is by how few jokes about them appear when they die. The fact that Twitter permits an ‘instant response’ doesn’t mean there should be one, and it’s always important when making a joke to consider whether you’ve got the right target. Like any form of humour, responses to funnies on Twitter are incredibly subjective, but there are some subjects that are unlikely to go down well in a public forum.

Finally, don’t worry too much if you can’t do carefully crafted, intricate, expertly prepared, perfectly timed satire - there’s always time for knob gags. They work just as well.

James Martin is creative lead at That Lot for media clients including Have I Got New For You and Channel 4

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