But first, the Sarah Silverman part of the story. On Christmas Day 2009, Sulkin was sitting in a New York City hotel room when he got an automated e-mail that read, “Sarah Silverman is now following you on Twitter.” It was immediately followed by a note. “She sent me a direct message that said, ‘You’re funny,’?” Sulkin remembers. “I started writing her back right away. Initially, I was a little bit of a dick. I was kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re famous. I can’t talk to you.’ She bristled at that, so I realized it wasn’t the way to go. Within two days, though, we were exchanging dozens of messages. I was still in New York, but I felt that something was going to happen. One night soon afterward, I was back in L.A. and Sarah sent me a direct message saying, ‘I’m not feeling well. Will you come over and feel my forehead?’ I went to her house instantly. That was the night before New Year’s Eve, and from that day forward, we didn’t spend a night apart for months. It was really intense and great for a long time.”
Over e-mail, I ask Silverman why she felt compelled to contact Sulkin. (They have since broken up—very amicably, thank you.) “I read his tweets, and they were so funny, dark and beautiful. He’s like this sardonic, honest, hilarious poet.” As for why she thinks Sulkin is so good in 140-character nano-quips: “Twitter isn’t based on politics or selling yourself in a room. It’s straight-up talent. No one owns it. There are no notes or executives; there is just one cook. And Alec baring his cynical soul is undeniable greatness.”
Another undeniable result: All the cynical soul baring has turned him into a veritable Twitter crush. Female followers randomly send him messages like “ur the only man id ever let put it in my bum. i trust u being my soul mate so much im willing2sacrifice my sacred hole.” “There are times,” Sulkin says, “when I get an @ message from someone and I blow up their avatar photo and think, Is the person who wrote this suggestive thing hot? And do they live in Los Angeles? And are they over 21?”
Most likely, anal virginity is being offered to Sulkin because of his fame and relative fortune—as opposed to the hoary chestnut about women being attracted to a man’s sense of humor above all else. But there is something going on with Twitter, a new kind of star-to-fan relationship that allows a person’s followers to feel closer to him than they would a guy who was just a successful writer or comedian. “Twitter is an intimate thing,” Sulkin says. “When I read a Steve Martin tweet, it’s like I can hear his voice. And if you read my stuff carefully and you’re smart, I think you could figure out a lot about me. More people now know me from Twitter than have ever known me for anything else. It’s insane how many people are following me. I feel like the biggest part of my existence is spent trying to continually feed these people.”
I’ve started to believe that tweeting well is a form of seduction. You can’t come on too strong, but at the same time, you have to give the object of your desire (your needy, fickle followers) the right amount of attention. They want to feel special and feel like they’re part of something when they follow you. All the while, you don’t want to seem desperate. These days, Sulkin’s life is scheduled around striking this delicate balance. “It sounds ridiculous,” he says, “but if I know I’m going out for the night, I’ll tweet right before I leave. Then I know I’ll have at least a three-hour cushion to do whatever the fuck I want. It’s like clearing space in my schedule.”
The headquarters of Seth MacFarlane’s animated comedy empire are next door to the building where Sulkin lives. (“Less than a one-song walk door-to-door,” he says.) The windows of Sulkin’s corner office are tinted to thwart the perpetual L.A. sunlight, and his walls are bare save for a corkboard. In one corner, a framed, signed Larry Bird jersey leans against the wall. In another corner, there’s a guitar. On this day, three other Family Guy writers are gathered inside. Two of them—Artie Johann (@DearAnyone, 52,042 followers) and Shawn Ries (@shawnries, 15,564 followers)—are prolific tweeters themselves. The third, a very funny man named Ted Jessup, should be on Twitter but is not. He tells me, with a weary sigh, that he fears it would become another “onerous obligation.”
Their task is to figure out how to close out a scene in which the show’s lovable ESL housekeeper character, Consuela, has somehow found herself directing traffic at a busy intersection. “Okay,” Sulkin says, looking down at the script in his hand, “I guess we’re good through when she says, ‘No, no, no, no!’ We can do whatever we want after that.”
To get in the right mind-set, everyone starts channeling Consuela by quietly repeating her catchphrase—the word no in a heavy Spanish accent with a teasing falsetto. “We could have her stop to squeegee someone’s windshield,” Ries says.
“One of those hot-dog trucks could come by. The guy could give her a hot dog while saying ‘That’s $2’ and she could say, ‘No!’?” Jessup offers.
“Maybe she does four ‘nos’ and then says to the next car, ‘Sí, you come,’?” Sulkin suggests. “When it comes forward, she could say, ‘You give me ride home?’?”
The idea is met by laughter and starts to branch off into a more developed riff. “So she gets in the car,” Sulkin continues, “and the guy sighs and goes, ‘Okay, where do you live?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know.’?” Now, the other writers pitch in again, each speaking in Consuela’s voice.
“….is by Enterprise Rent-A-Car.”
“….is by check-cashing place.”
“….is by the check-cashing Chinese food restaurant.”
“Have you seen that place?” Sulkin asks the room, placing the riff on hold. “When you come back from the airport, there’s a place that’s check cashing, Chinese food, chicken wings and doughnuts.” A mini-discussion of racial stereotyping in the urban retail world begins. More tangents bloom, until eventually we’re so far off topic that Jessup is explaining—in quite an erudite way—the American buffalo’s path to extinction and the etymological origin of the phrase You’re fired!
As they wind down, I check Twitter on my phone and see that Sulkin tweeted just a few minutes ago, apparently using sleight of hand. (The tweet: “?‘You from LA?’ ‘Yup. Bored and bred.’?”) Later, when I ask him about it, he tells me, “I’m constantly monitoring Twitter.” He pays close attention to how many followers he’s gaining or losing at any given moment and how many people are mentioning him. “I’m tweeting all the time—at work, in the middle of the day, whenever.” Johann tells us that, for his part, he keeps a Stickie on his computer desktop where he logs potential tweets. “I looked at it the other day,” he says. “It was all dick stuff.”
The tweet-heavy work environment doesn’t seem to bother their boss, Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane, 1,962,406 followers). “For me, Alec completely legitimized the whole idea of Twitter,” MacFarlane says. “Each medium has its own style and its own requirements, and Alec invented his own writing style for this medium. When I read Alec’s Twitter account, I thought, God, this completely changes things.
“Most Twitter feeds are strings of gobbledygook—oftentimes they don’t even make sense. But it’s a perfect format for Alec because he has an observational mind that’s unparalleled. I was watching reruns of the old Dick Van Dyke Show the other day, and it occurred to me that Alec is a modern-day Morey Amsterdam. He’s the guy who just stands in the room and reels off strings of impossibly quick and impossibly clever one-liners. He really is the 2012 version—in his hipness, relevance, progressiveness and edginess—of the old-style Jewish comedian.”
On a Thursday night in West Hollywood, I meet Sulkin at a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. A variety of stand-up routines are scheduled to begin shortly in the bar’s back room. Sulkin, wearing a blazer-and-tie combo that gives him the look of a down-at-the-heels prep school English teacher, had told me beforehand that the Twitterati (his phrase) will be out in force. Now, he introduces me to a bunch of them as they stand in a scrum in the middle of the room. Their faces mean nothing to me, and as we shake hands, neither do their given names. But when they tell me their Twitter handles, there is a jolt of recognition. They are, in no particular order:
@GuyEndoreKaiser, 26,711 followers, comedy writer. Sample tweet: “Taking an Italian person to The Olive Garden is like taking a black person to 1864.”
@DearAnyone, 52,042 followers, Family Guy’s Johann. Sample tweet: “I’m just smart enough to be frustrated with how dumb I am.”
@DamienFahey, 42,234 followers, one-time Carson Daly replacement on MTV’s Total Request Live. Sample tweet: “The worst iPhone app ever would be one that sends you a text message anytime your dad gets a boner.”
Though I’m meeting them for the first time (excepting Johann), I already know their senses of humor. And if any of the great psychological theories on humor are to be believed, I therefore could easily extrapolate their deepest anxieties and fixations. That’s partly why I’m so interested in Twitter users who aren’t necessarily professional jokesters—my personal Twitterati. (Every Twitter user has such a list.) The comic musings of the everyday tweeter serve as a sort of prism into their lives. It’s a kind of compelling, hilarious autobiography, and it makes other people’s mundanity totally interesting. Take, for instance, @tracy_marq, 10,611 followers, a 20-year-old cashier from the L.A. suburbs. Sample tweet: “Someone go downstairs and see why my mom was crying for two hours and then get me a granola bar and bring it upstairs.” Or @IamEnidColeslaw, 35,972 followers, a mysterious and vulgar 26-year-old clerical worker from Chicago. Sample tweet: “Just ate McDonalds after working out, which is the same as taking a shit after a shower.”
Here’s where the egalitarian nature of Twitter really shines through. Write enough funny tweets, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a garbage man or a plutocrat—eventually you’ll start getting followers, accolades and that strange, addictive Twitter fame.
Back at Sulkin’s Miracle Mile apartment, I ask him if he ever thinks about the end of Twitter. The question feels strangely solemn, as though I’m asking about the end of the world. But really, how long can Twitter be sustained until it becomes something radically different? Everything on the web is always just a nascent form of its next version anyway. “Sometimes I get a little bit tired of it,” Sulkin says. “And I think, Maybe I should just cap it at 5,000 tweets, which is coming soon.” (His self-imposed retirement from Twitter never occurred, obviously. As of press time he has surpassed the 5,000-tweet plateau by almost 1,000 tweets.) “But then I also think, Fuck that! Stopping now would be like saying, ‘I’m not funny anymore.’ And I do think that I can still be funny, poignant or sad in a way that’s entertaining. I never want to give that up.”
I don’t think Sulkin could stop tweeting even if he wanted to. In the drafts section of his iPhone’s Twitter app, he has 320 potential tweets lined up. And on his computer, there is a tweet file that is hovering around 16,000 characters. Tweets come to him when he’s in the shower, when he’s walking across the street to work, when he’s on planes. Basically, life hands tweets to Sulkin because he’s hardwired to receive them. Like most funny people, he’s a full-time observer. Twitter is made for his breed.
“So it never ends?” I ask.
Sulkin laughs. “It might have been Seth MacFarlane who asked a while ago, ‘What do we do now? Do we tweet every day until we die?’?”
Sorry, @thesulk, but the answer, probably, is yes.