We continue Deep In The Game, our series of interviews with people from the internet, with Rob Delaney, Twitter’s primary humourist.
Words: Alex Towers // Image: Josh Mecouch // more Deep In The Game
Eleven years ago Rob Delaney drove his car into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building while blackout drunk. He broke his arm and his wrist and cut both his knees to the bone. After awaking in a prison wheelchair, he decided to seek treatment for his alcoholism and depression. After two years of rehabilitation, physical therapy and surgery, Delaney got better and started telling jokes.
He had been a fledgling stand-up before his accident but following his withdrawal from alcohol he began to get hooked on the serotonin release that came with audience laughter. But it was a difficult habit to maintain and he was forced to take a series of jobs that paid less than minimum wage. Then he heard about Twitter.
“I started tweeting when I couldn’t afford to feed myself” Delaney explains. “I realised I needed to take advantage of every available tool and Twitter kind of suited comedians.” Soon he found people across the social network started sharing his jokes, which then led to more established comedians recognising his wit and sharing it themselves. Now just over four years later 800,000 people follow Delaney on Twitter. His name and humour have become so synonymous with the social network that it feels unlikely that anyone could have a Twitter account and have not already borne witness in some way to his deranged jokes. Last year he triumphed over Aziz Ansari and Stephen Colbert to win an award for “Funniest Person on Twitter.” Graham Linehan calls him “a genius”, Susan Orlean calls him “my beloved” and Deborah Needleman calls him “compellingly disgusting”.
His ability to alchemise sentences that might appear at first glance to be bizarre, often sordid gibberish into immensely popular comedy gold is totally unique. With only 140 characters to work with he fashions miniature absurdist scenarios with an emphasis on verbal aesthetics and juxtaposing a childlike grasp of the world with a darker almost pornographic obsession tinged with the peripherally erotic that could also be equal parts profane and brutally sincere.
It’s therefore nearly impossible to explain Delaney’s Twitter appeal. You find yourself laughing at turns of phrase that if spoken out loud would only warrant a worried look. Straightforward gags (“The story of the Titanic speaks to me because I once tripped over a bag of ice at a party & then killed over 1, 500 people”) are usually only topped by the surreal (“I just sent back the ‘everything’ bagel I ordered because it didn’t have tiny Spice Girls figurines on it”) or disgusting (“Despite the heartiness of the meal I just gave my toilet, it just belched ‘I want more’ as I walked out of the bathroom”).
“I find if you have to put too much effort into thinking about a joke it doesn’t work,” Delaney says. “Usually the more natural the spouting off, the more popular it is. But there is a practical element to it because I want to be more popular and sell more tickets to my live shows. So there is a certain mercenary aspect to it as well.” Recently in a typical interaction Delaney called the toilet paper company Charmin a “son of a bitch” over his claim that his daughter had been killed after she tried to offer a bear some of their product. After 3,500 people shared the tweet, Charmin’s public relations team was at a total loss about how to respond.
“I really enjoy Twitter,” he admits, “but I kind of think of it like a little video game. It doesn’t feel real to me in the same way as other things do”. But with such a devoted fan following (a measure of which can be seen by the board game being released this May in which players must demonstrate knowledge of Delaney’s tweets) the steady stream of adoration only seems to be increasing. “It’s insane,” he acknowledges, “but if I really started thinking about the actual amount of people who follow me, then I might not use Twitter as much. It’s not the same as stand-up, so I try not to think about it.”
Despite his gleefully manic and sordid online persona, in reality Delaney describes himself as “alarmingly boring”. While his Twitter avatar shows him sporting a pedophile’s beard and a tight neon-green speedo, in reality he looks more like a cheerful Don Draper. Having met his wife of seven years while doing volunteer work at a special-needs camp, they now live in Los Angeles with their two children. Accordingly his stand-up has seen a slight shift from the imaginative scatological humour that defined his earlier sets to more of a narrative and linear flow of observations. There are still plenty of assholes and cocks, but now they are intercut with sweet remarks about how disgusting his children are or a bit about his wife’s pregnancy.
He recently appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon where he was shorn of his usual profanity and had to scale back on the obscenity, resulting in an atypically cleaner brand of relatively innocent observational comedy. Consequently Delaney, hair slicked back and dressed in a sharp suit, came across as radically different from the man who regularly tells hundreds of thousands of people about his penis on twitter.
“There is certainly some overlap thematically between Twitter and my stand up” he says. “I talk about a lot of the same things but I do it in a more anecdotal, conversational way. Instead of the vast array of characters and lies that I tell on Twitter you can see it all coming out of one human mouth.” Irony is also frequently used by Delaney to enhance his material and he used to do a bit where he would come onstage and start telling the audience that he was a former “godless faggot” whose parents had him “pray away the gay” before starting to casually flirt with the men in the front row. Then he would reveal he was lying but that the experience had happened to his friend and would end the bit by talking about how vile homophobia is (“If there are any homophobes here tonight, I’d like to invite you backstage after the show to suck my dick, and you’ll see it’s not so bad”). It’s the kind of switch Delaney does quite often, satirising a viewpoint or opinion by sarcastically adopting it. But with this kind of humour there is always a chance people could be laughing at him in the wrong way.
“I think people are much smarter than we often give them credit for,” he clarifies. “There’s certainly a toilet of humanity out there, but most audiences I’ve encountered are pretty amenable to what I really am which is just some schmuck. There would be people sometimes who would miss the point and think I’m going to ‘stick it to the gays’ but that just meant it was so much more satisfying to see homophobes and bigots realise they were wrong. People do laugh for the wrong reasons, but it’s not something I really worry about.” However although his live audiences might be more adept at seeing the lightness of his material, the internet and the millions of explosively volatile inhabitants is a different landscape altogether. Sometimes even the most innocent of Delaney’s online jokes are met with demands that he “kill himself and his family”.
“I’ve met so many amazing, wonderful and hilarious people online though” he counters, “most of them are so much funnier than me and say things that I could never even have thought of. It’s kind of like humanity plus or humanity squared or something. Of course then I see people who are worse than the slime under a rock in a garbage dump. So there will be the guy who thinks your joke is fantastic and the woman who thinks if she rubs the joke on herself she will get pregnant and then the person who thinks what you said is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the English language. I have this unique opportunity to see all these people’s reactions from all these different places. So while most people fit into the spectrum of the relatively normal reactions, usually either ‘ha ha’ or ‘that was dumb’ there are always going to be people who think that I’m a monster hydra with eight evil heads trying to decimate the global population of babies. None of them are correct though. I’m just some idiot with a keyboard.”