We’re in Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon in a penthouse apartment 26 stories above the Miracle Mile. A man named Alec Sulkin sinks into an expansive couch. Clad in jeans and an aging New England Patriots hoodie, he alternates between fiddling with his iPhone and watching the Dodgers beat the Rockies on the TV in front of him. He has the floppy, basset-hound handsomeness of a Rubber Soul–era Beatle and lives in what looks like a hotel suite that has been squatted by a lassitudinous college-age stoner. Modern Stormtrooper is the predominant interior design motif. The cannon fodder of the Galactic Empire looks down upon him from various posters and prints. Competing for pride of place are images of Peter, Brian and Stewie Griffin—understandably so since Sulkin is a staff writer and producer on the Fox animated series Family Guy.
The 39-year-old Sulkin peers at his iPhone with a momentary flash of purpose. He opens the Twitter app, taps out a few words, thinks briefly, taps a little bit more and hits the tweet button. The following piece of pith goes up on his Twitter account: “Just once, I’d like to trigger an explosion while walking away from it.” Instantly, his followers read it. There are 365,309 of them—an ever-shifting mass of strangers, friends, celebrities, stalkers and detractors. Within seconds, their responses begin to roll in. More than 340 followers retweet the joke (or, in Twitter vernacular, RT it). Another 248 followers favorite it. “More mentions than minutes is a good rule of thumb,” Sulkin says with a whiff of mantra.
Sulkin doesn’t remember the day he joined Twitter. All he knows is that he signed up at some point in March 2009 only to let his account languish, as many people do. Mainly, he was unsure how to make Twitter a part of his life, as many people are. He does know, however, the exact moment he got serious about Twitter—a quick, unconsidered moment at home alone: “I was watching The Net, with Sandra Bullock, which is a movie I’ve seen many more times than it deserves. I was looking at her weird 1990s khakis, and I tweeted about that.” The exact tweet, for historical purposes: “Sandra Bullock sports an unreasonably high-waisted pair of khakis in The Net. (I’m back!)”
Such was the inauspicious beginning of Sulkin’s perfection of a new and strange sort of celebrity—Twitter stardom. The first wave of followers was composed of people around the Family Guy office—fellow writers whom Sulkin respects—who joined the site just to follow @thesulk, his nom de tweets. One of them, Gary Janetti (@GaryJanetti, 59,348 followers), is the boyfriend of stylist guy Brad Goreski from the Bravo series It’s a Brad, Brad World. At some point, Goreski (@mrbradgoreski, 173,942 followers), who had something like 20,000 followers at the time, #FF’d Sulkin (that’s Twitter shorthand for recommending another user to one’s own followers). And presto, the next wave of followers for @thesulk. Over the next few months—through a combination of the right time (the dawn of Twitter), the right place (strategically perfect #FFs and RTs) and the right guy (Sulkin is deeply, naturally funny)—@thesulk found himself getting very, very popular. And that popularity has little to do with Family Guy or the fact that until recently he was having sexual relations with Sarah Silverman. Today, Sulkin is legitimately famous because of Twitter.
Writing a good tweet can be vexing—you try being memorably funny and cogent in 140 characters or fewer—but comedians seem adept at it. If nothing else, Twitter, a place where humor needs to be honed into a small, diamond-sharp shiv, reminds us that one simple joke can be vast in its relevance and depth. Look at some of the best aphoristic humorists and you’ll see how much can be said in just a few words. S.J. Perelman: “To err is human; to forgive, supine.” (36 characters.) Oscar Wilde: “One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.” (61 characters.) Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” (84 characters.) The same goes for the Borscht Belt comedians of yore, whose bam-bam-bam lines would have been RT’d like crazy. As Don Rickles (@DonRickles, 70,626 followers) recently told me via e-mail, “If Henny Youngman were alive today he would be having a field day with Twitter.” Rickles is right. One of Youngman’s more famous lines—“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading”—is a modest 58 characters. All the Borscht Belters kept it short and sweet. To wit, Jackie Mason: “Eighty percent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe.” (73 characters.) Or Joan Rivers: “A man can sleep around, no questions asked. But if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she’s a tramp.” (98 characters.)
Sulkin alternates between a few comedic approaches on Twitter. There’s the blue material: “Not to be a dick but jizz! Jizz! Jizz! Drip. Piss.” There are lame puns: “Wrote a paper on big 90s boobs, but I was never totally satisfied with my Tiffani-Amber Thesis.” (Annoyed friends have told Sulkin they are sure he suffers from Witzelsucht syndrome, a rare neurological disorder characterized by excessive, compulsive punning.) And then there are my favorites—the brutally self-deprecating put-downs: “Hiding weakness is one of my strengths.” And “I disgust myself but I don’t surprise myself.”
“I have a lot of shitty months,” he says, which is fine by me because the anxious, neurotic stuff is where Sulkin not only clambers to the top of the Twitter heap but also becomes a torchbearer of classic Jewish comedy. (Another of my all-time favorite Sulkin tweets: “Every time my Dad blows his nose, I kinda get why there was a holocaust.”) Sulkin’s wildly varied repertoire stems from his worry about being pigeonholed as a one-note comic. “Woody Allen is a great example of someone who has smart jokes and silly jokes,” he says. “He pays homage to Groucho Marx, but a lot of his other jokes are incredibly sophisticated and nuanced. Some of his movies are barely funny. They’re tragic. I try to do that in some of my stuff. If I’m feeling sad, I’ll tweet something sad. I don’t care that it isn’t a joke.”
Allow me to humbly propose a theory about comedy on Twitter: We have become too immersed in postmodern humor—mockumentaries, shows within shows, unreliable comedic narrators, knowing glances to the camera. Comedy has become like one big William Gaddis novel. And that’s great: It’s advanced; it makes us sophisticated. Yet where does the simple, pure joke live in that jungle of referential complication? All this cleverness risks suffocating the kernels of stupid truth that are at the heart of everything funny. But not on Twitter—a wildlife preserve for one-liners, puns and double entendres. At its essence, Twitter is a mode of comedy that resists too much cleverness. And comedians, as in real-life comedians, are thankful for it. “Meta-comedy is so goddamn annoying,” Norm Macdonald (@normmacdonald, 365,258 followers) told me not long ago. “Comedy isn’t important enough to be meta. To me, the best joke ever is ‘Take my wife, please.’ It’s a three-word setup and a one-word punch line.”
Even meta-comedy masters like Garry Shandling, the co-creator of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (Old Testament meta) and The Larry Sanders Show (New Testament meta), are enlivened by Twitter (@GarryShandling, 168,256 followers). His feed is full of odd spellings, inventive grammar and nonsensical thoughts. It’s warty and only occasionally funny, but it’s weirdly compelling. He treats his followers as if they were the manifestation of a Hydra that follows him around his house. He frequently says good night on Twitter, and his fans say it back to him—kind of like a twisted, digital version of The Waltons. Meanwhile, he still manages a hysterical gem now and again (e.g., “eHarmony matched me up with a gun”).
“Some of my tweets are just silly,” Shandling explains. “They don’t make sense on the surface, but my followers start to sense this punchy guy. That’s hilarious to me. Sometimes they’ll go, ‘Are you drinking tonight, Garry?’ The answer is always no, because I don’t drink. But I get loose, and I think they’re not used to people being so loose on Twitter. I work Twitter like it’s a big room. A comedian working a nightclub can lose the room, but on Twitter you can actually lose the whole world.”
The first published jokes to spring forth from Sulkin’s mind appeared in a much more analog venue—The Circle, the more subversive of the two newspapers at his tony Massachusetts prep school, Middlesex. The humor, while not dripping with nuance, at least attempted to push buttons. “We once published ‘The Top 10 Worst Things About Our School Librarian,’?” he tells me. “It was mean—things like ‘You’re old, and your life is sad.’?” The piece caused such a stir that Sulkin found himself standing before the school’s headmaster, treading carpet and begging forgiveness. Later, during Sulkin’s senior year, the school appointed a new headmaster, an Asian American woman. Again, he published a list—this time of “names one shouldn’t call” the new hire. Each was a ridiculous Wild West insult (“Lily Liver,” “Chicken Gizzard”). Among the gags was “Yellowbelly.” A PC shit storm ensued due to the headmaster’s ethnicity, and Sulkin spent graduation day in a disciplinary meeting facing bizarre charges of racism, which were later dropped.
He spent the next four years at Connecticut College, where he majored in pot smoking. “I’m sure the classes and teachers were great,” he says. “But I never went.” (Sulkin’s love affair with THC continues today, and some of his best tweets have been about weed—e.g., “Kids, don’t smoke pot. Unless you want to be like the Beatles” or “Kids, never mix pot, alcohol and vicodin unless you want a severe case of the fucking wonderfuls.”) As a senior, Sulkin scored an internship at Saturday Night Live. “Chris Farley was there,” he recalls. “David Spade was there. It was the remnants of the Adam Sandler–Mike Myers era.” After graduation, he parlayed the internship into a job as a writers’ assistant. Mainly this meant gofering, but from time to time he put actual words to paper. “I sometimes would write those little ads with that week’s host saying, ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so. I’m hosting Saturday Night Live, with musical guest so-and-so.’ Then they would do a quick joke, which was mine. It was exciting.” Norm Macdonald, who was still doing “Weekend Update” at the time, remembers Sulkin, though just barely. “He hardly ever spoke,” Macdonald says.
After being replaced at SNL by Regis Philbin’s daughter (weird), Sulkin drifted into stand-up comedy. Though he professes to have hated every minute of it, he continued to tell jokes before a live audience for the next three years, dragging himself on stage to somnambulate his way through a set of static material for minuscule crowds who didn’t give a shit about him. “I remember all my terrible jokes,” he says. “It was around the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta so I did something about the Jewish Olympics with events like the ‘oy vey-vault’ and the ‘shot-put that down before you hurt yourself.’?”
Salvation came in 1999 when he was asked to audition for a writer’s position on The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn. (Remember him?) After getting the morning paper and quickly submitting 50 jokes about the news contained therein (an exercise not unlike Twitter), Sulkin got the job. Also on Kilborn’s staff was Wellesley Wild, an old friend from Sulkin’s Marijuana U days at Connecticut College. “Wellesley and I decided that we would partner up,” says Sulkin. “We mainly wanted to get into sitcoms because you can only make a certain amount of money writing for late-night television, thanks to union rules.” One of their early spec scripts landed them on the 2003 Fox series The Pitts, which had the lifespan of a mayfly. But the show’s writing staff included Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Guess where that led.