In one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld, Jerry grows increasingly irritated with his dentist, a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston, who loves telling jokes about dentists—and who, after an abrupt conversion from Catholicism to Judaism, starts telling Jewish jokes as well. Jerry is convinced he’s only converted for in-group joke privileges, and, not sure who else to gripe to, ends up in a confessional explaining this to a priest. “And this offends you as a Jewish person?” the priest asks him.
“It offends me,” he replies, “as a comedian.”
So here’s my confession. Like me, erstwhile serious presidential candidate and current Fox News host Mike Huckabee spends a lot of his time making jokes on Twitter. While I find Huckabee’s politics mostly repellent, as an aspirationally professional funny person what makes me angriest about his tweets is how not funny they are. Every time he gets retweeted into my timeline (don’t worry, I haven’t reached the stage of Twitter self-harm where I hate-follow people), I’m as likely to get angry at his sloppy craft than at whatever ideological point he’s trying to make.
Take this one from the other day, which Huckabee tweeted during Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation hearing:
I will say one thing for this tweet: it clocks in at exactly 140 characters without any distracting abbreviations, which is always a small victory. That said, everything else about it is like a master class in how not to write a joke on Twitter, or anywhere else. It’s really kind of impressive that he manages to pack so much wrong into so little space. I count at least three cardinal sins of humor writing:
1. Phantom wordplay. The phrasing of the joke—”[X] will be renamed [Y]”—leads us to expect a pun or something similar where X and Y will be related in some way. But it’s hard to see how exactly he worked his way from “Jimmy Dean Sausage” to “Gorsuch,” or maybe vice versa. Nothing rhymes; nothing scans rhythmically. Maybe the first syllable in “Gorsuch,” combined with the judge’s flesh-grindingly (?) effective performance in the Senate, made Huckabee think about pork, and then think about the Jimmy Dean sausage brand and its “Pure Pork Sausage!” catchphrase. But to the reader, it’s a baffling setup that never delivers. The beginning of a joke should ideally not lead in the direction your audience expects, but it should go somewhere.
2. Distracting synonyms. It’s too bad Huckabee became fixated on pork and the grinding thereof into sausage when conceiving of this joke, because pork already has an accepted meaning when it comes to legislative politics: local projects bankrolled by federal money, appropriated by a Representative or Senator and meant to help their re-election chances. That has nothing to do with the Senate’s job in vetting Supreme Court nominees, but it’s hard not to think about when you’re talking about Senators and you start throwing the word around. Your joke should have a specific point, and you should purge or rewrite sections that accidentally imply a punchline or association you don’t intend.
3. Unnecessary repetition. “Sausage” appears three times in this tweet. That’s bad any time you’re joking, but when you only have 140 characters to work with, it’s a real sin! When you repeat the same word over and over within such a small space, you’re drawing more and more attention to it, and unless the word itself is the punchline, you’re only going to leave your audience bewildered.
Somewhat ironically, all three of these points can be made more concise when boiled down to a single maxim: be concise. Be more focused. Don’t put things into your joke that don’t directly contribute to the point you’re trying to deliver.
That’s my comedic philosophy, anyway. But Huckabee’s Twitter feed amply demonstrates that he doesn’t agree with me on comedy any more than on politics. Take this tweet, for instance, which I actually like:
This has a single, discernible punchline, and is disarmingly self-deprecating. It’s not particularly polished, though, and you can see how with a little editing it could be tighter and funnier. It sounds conversational and off-the-cuff, which is, I suppose, part of the charm of Twitter for some people—you get the sense that you’re hearing them talk. Donald Trump’s tweets are very much in his voice, too, but they rarely waste words. If there were a word I’d use to describe Huckabee’s tweets, it would be shaggy. And often, shaggy jokes are just a mess.
This is a tweet that’s basically trying to be two jokes at once. There’s “Rachel Maddow promises to find something hidden that doesn’t pan out, just as many have claimed falsely to have found these famously missing people”; there’s “Snoop Dog [sic] has been confirmed to not pay taxes, as many claim Donald Trump doesn’t.” Neither is that funny, and when the two are combined via a chronologically improbable sexual liaison (which, as imagined by Southern Baptist minister Huckabee, at least occurs within the bounds of holy matrimony for the purpose of producing children), it’s bizarre and disorienting and still not funny. Remember, kids, two mediocre jokes added together don’t make one good joke.
This is, of course, one man’s opinion, and perhaps an opinion tinged with a certain amount of jealousy over the fact that Huckabee has amassed 610,000 followers to my 8,400. I will say this, though: Huck has the one thing that every comic needs to find within themselves if they’re going to be successful, which is confidence that other people want to hear what they have to say.
After this is published, I look forward to the haters analyzing my own Twitter output. Do your worst, haters!
Josh Fruhlinger hosts The Internet Read Aloud and has been known as the Comics Curmudgeon since 2004. He’s on Twitter @jfruh.